Saturday 3 February 2018

Longevity in gardeners

Gardeners live long
Not falling, just failing
I keep reading surveys that claim gardening extends your life by as much as a decade. I don't really believe such precision, there are far too many variables. You can’t compare a gardener who is outside all day throughout the year with someone who barely gets their fingers mucky in nice weather at the weekend. My wife Brenda says she is a fair weather gardener, not when it is cold, wet or windy. Hardly ever!

I'm in charge
The said all year round gardener will often be professional and  might have a healthy life of challenge, decision making, interest and independence or in contrast spend stressful days as an automaton working strimmers, chainsaws and hedges trimmers at the behest of incompetent management and by-the-book regulations or carrying out contracts written by idiots.
Never the less it makes sense that gardening is usually life extending. One might say it’s not surprising with fresh air and exercise but I suggest that there is much more to it than that.

Let there be sunshine
Dr David Grimes is my inspiration
Gardeners in summer are exposed to the sun. I must warn you that I tell anyone who will listen the health benefit of the ‘sunshine vitamin', vitamin d. Also I offer a disclaimer that in declaring my opinions I have no medical authority. 
Note that the benefits of sunshine are not limited to the skin’s production of vitamin d. Sunshine gives us a feeling of well being and in recent years has been demonstrated to have other direct health giving benefits.

On a sunny summer’s day our bodies can manufacture in the region of 20,000 units of vitamin d - in as little as half an hour (with no further appreciable production possible that day). I find it ludicrous that the UK recommended daily oral dose is as little as 200 to 400 units. 
There is a wealth of information of vitamin d's numerous health giving benefits including better outcomes for all cancers with the possible (disputed) exception of skin cancer. From heart health to the intimate workings of our genome vitamin d has life extending power.
Not only does a gardener receive the various benefits of sunshine throughout the year (note that vitamin d production in the UK is negligible or even none existent November to March), he does not lie sunbathing but soaks up sunshine moving around exposing intermittently different parts his skin. As must have been the case with our ancestors our bodies will not usually be in the sun for long periods as we move in and out of the shade.
Personally I never apply suncream at home in the UK. Rightly or wrongly I feel that my usual tan and year round continuity of exposure is sufficient protection. I do not however advocate that anyone who is lily white skinned and normally house bound should lie in the sun for long periods without suncream. Nor anyone skiing or walking at altitude

Liquid sunshine
For the record Brenda and myself supplement our winter vitamin d by taking daily 5000 unit soft gels. So does our extended family exposed to my propaganda. Brenda's sister Joyce, ever the perfectionist, take 3000 unit tablets, the level nearest to that indicated by current research. When she had a blood test recently the doctor told her that her blood vitamin d level was perfect - unlike  most of his patients. Why on earth do they recommend merely 400 units which is barely enough to keep rickets away?

A more subtle effect of light is that it drives circadian rhythms. The gardener goes to bed early and other than high summer gets up at dawn. Add another couple of years to his timeline.
Picture the tanned healthy rugged face of a gardener. One who wakes in the morning with a smile on his face

Beneficial microorganisms
Bacteria and natural oils keep my hair clean
News of beneficial bacteria continues to cascade from the laboratories and as ever from the food industry come dubious claims. Some of these new discoveries involve breathing in bacteria  from the open air and bodily contacts with soil.
All over our skin as well as internally, beneficial symbiotic microorganisms abound. I never wash my hair (unless I have had a garden bonfire) and very time Brenda’s hairdresser cuts it she raptures over its soft sweet smelling nature. In fact I get by without using any cosmetics whatsoever and shave with pure water. It horrifies me what toxic and often antibacterial materials people douse on their skin.
It would seem that bacteria confer their benefits in numerous ways and many examples involve soil. Our gut biome is enriched by what we ingest. Things like soil on our homegrown carrots come to mind. Research on soil bacteria’s role in countering depression and maintaining clear thinking is well under way.
One might think of children making mud pies (should enlightened parents let them) and gardeners eating their snap with dirty hands. Apart from bacteria that are ingested, cuts and grazes provide direct bodily contact. 
Often benefits arise in terms of keeping our immune systems primed. Unworked immune systems and body repair mechanisms  get up to mischief and can be associated with allergies and other body malfunctions  - the list of which is ever increasing.
Another way in which bacteria improve health is in the gut where  harmless bacteria compete for resources with known harmful bacteria and often outgrow them.
Gardeners are on the front line to receive most of these natural benefits

Fresh air
More than eighty and going strong 
Undoubtably fresh air improves health and this is scientifically proven; unfortunately if you live alongside a busy motorway it is not fresh and outdoor air can be variously contaminated.

A lot of nonsense is written about why fresh air is good for us. For example it does not contain extra oxygen - any differences are barely measurable. In contrast the differences in carbon dioxide levels can be huge. In a busy conference room or classroom levels of carbon dioxide might be increased threefold or even more. Enhanced carbon dioxide does effect such things as mood and sleepiness.
I myself always feel jaded if I do not get outside at least for a small part of the day. Perhaps that is why I garden?
It is beyond my scope today to speculate why indoor air is ‘stale’. Poor circulation, closed windows, dryness, uniform temperature, house dust, dust mites, polishes and disinfectants all come to mind.

Winter box's powerful aroma pervades my garden 
Outdoors it feels so very different and the psychology of the freedom of the great outdoors and the joy of being in a garden transforms your mood. It may be that certain volatiles from the soil and vegetation are physically beneficial and outside aromas make you feel better.
The gardener breathes fresh air deeply all day

Alan Warwick, eighty eight and gardens all day
A gardener does not need to go to the gym. In a large garden he walks many miles. Gardening activities work most of his muscles and gardeners bend down quite a lot. 
Digging might not do much for the soil but boy does it keep a gardener fit. I tend to distain certain gardening activities when I foolishly forget that they foster contentment. Your work might not help the garden but is good for the soul.

Low level vigorous exercise is good for the heart. Remember that when you saw logs or push or merely keep up with your mower.

I used to think that Brenda was doing my health a disservice when she was always demanding I move large heavy pots and garden furniture around. I regularly curse and struggle with her wretched sunshades especially when they frequently blow over.
The health benefits of weight training and calisthenics is now very well known and lifting brings strengthened muscle and bone.
Brenda must have known this all the time. She looks after me well.

Apparently it's OK to carry a little 'extra weight' at my age

Health of the mind
Get away from your partner
The greatest pleasure of a lady gardener I know is to lie in the bath reading a plant catalogue. Almost every night I go to sleep content reminiscing the day’s gardening or planning the next. In the garden I enjoy the most unpleasant and tedious tasks. If a branch whips back and hits me I relieve tension by swearing and nobody hears me. I salivate over the vegetables I will soon be eating.

The peace of a garden
Catkins on a cold February morning
A gardener looks out on all he has achieved and his hearts swells with pride at every new flower. He plans new projects which give him a reason for living.
Its all in the mind. Perhaps some of us have a green gene and a reason for contentment. Freedom from the wrong kind of stress is surely life extending.
Brenda never forgets I once said that I play in the garden. She constantly reminds me she works in the house

Good nutrition

I do not claim that your own fruit and vegetables are more nutritious than those you buy but sometimes they are. Purchased  produce can be more nutritious when grown in sunnier climates or it might passively carry a greater range of beneficial minerals simply as a result of the diversity of worldwide soils. However I dare bet that many gardeners eat more vegetables and fruit than most - even if it is merely to avoid throwing surplus away. There is no doubt that they are very good for you. Clock up an extra decade of lifetime if you achieve the impossible by avoiding all processed food

A scabby apple a day keeps the doctor away
As an aside I might mention that our ancestors frequently ate scabby vegetables and fruits where damaged plants had healed natural wounds. Such scars contain natural aspirin precursors. Some scientists have argued that the benefits of aspirin to our bodies are enough to classify it as a vitamin!
Dare I suggest that garden produce not plastered with chemicals might sometimes be imperfect. and ergo better for us than flawless stuff from the supermarket.

One theory about the undoubted health benefits of vegetables is that they are the result of toxic natural chemicals which they often contain in very small quantities Such chemicals are natural defences to plant pest and disease. The scientific principle called hormesis moots that tiny amounts of what is bad for us is actually good. (This is nothing to do with the pseudo science of homeopathy). Gardeners apart from healthy eating are in constant contact with plants. I know to my discomfort when I yet again inadvertently rub euphorbia sap into my eyes. What stimulants might we pickup from plants and soil? Micro-dosing of psychedelic fungi anyone? 

I joked earlier about gardener’s green genes. I am actually quite serious that some of us might inherit a disposition to work with the soil. Perhaps this inheritance brings with it longevity? 

These final thoughts are somewhat frivolous and speculative but who knows what new benefits of gardening wait to be found?
All the above aspects to healthy living are not exclusive to gardeners. It’s just that we get more than our fair share.

Perhaps it all comes down to a good nights sleep and contentment?

They say marriage increases your life expectancy - but I sometimes wonder
Read Dr David Grimes for evidence based information about your health and nutrition
More wedding pictures

I have tempted fate today


  1. It would be good to think that is correct as long as it is a healthy, compos mentis longevity. I’d frazzle though without suncream and couldn’t bear not to wash me hair,

    I think your sarcoccoca is the same variety as ours

    1. Totally agree with you Sue. (is that a record?)
      Yes the sarcoccoca is very lightly variegated at the margin, bought at Bluebell nurseries in the Midlands and I have forgotten its name - old age you know

  2. As a septuagenarian( lower case) I believe every word you have told us today, well almost.
    I almost find it a necessity to get outdoors in the garden even on Scottish Winter days.
    Currently I am in extremely good health except for having AMD.

    1. I don't expect you to believe everything Alistair. Some of my comments are speculative and mischievous.My mention of natural aspirin precursors only hint at that aspirin is my medicine of choice if I have a headache or need for an anti-inflammatory - in the hope of other benefits such as those once promoted for mini aspirins before the powers that be lost there nerve, We together hope for continuing health.

      As to my hair - that was just meant as an illustration of the potential benefits of bacteria

  3. This past week, my Dad turned 76. He is not a very well man, with various ailments slowing him down, but he tries to keep as active as he can. Apart from volunteering at a charity shop every week, he goes to his allotment nearly every day. My Mum, my sister and I are sure he would be much worse - if still alive at all - without the garden.

    1. I omitted to mention the therapeutic benefits of gardening to those with existing conditions - as most of us do at your dad's age. I turn 76 myself next month so can relate to your dad

  4. Gardening is good for reliving stress, when you have your head down in the border you do forget your problems.

    1. Hi Brian I am taking the liberty of publishing your query sent by private e-mail as I think it might be of general interest.

      Could you please tell me where do you purchase your vitamin D3 tablets?
      I have searched the Internet.

      We have been purchasing our 360 vit D gels every six months now for nearly ten yeas from BIGVITS - an excellent UK company with a very good website and next day service. Just search bigvits' website by putting vit D3 in their search box. They cost about £15
      The gels are manufactured in the USA where pharmaceutical standards are very high

    2. Thank you Roger. I noticed the tablets contain no fillers, whereas so many do!


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