A growing number of studies are finding improved mental and physical health benefits of gardening. In addition to being a source of fresh, healthy produce, gardening can ease stress, keep you limber, and even improve your mood. Studies show that gardening promotes physical health, mental health through relaxation and satisfaction, and better nutrition.

• Enjoy the benefits of physical activity.

Gardening gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine -- and it also gets your blood pumping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels gardening as a “moderate cardiovascular exercise.”

The National Institute of Health goes so far as to recommend 30 to 45 minutes of gardening three to five times a week as part of a good strategy to combat obesity. If you are pressed for time, you can still benefit by breaking up your exercise into smaller portions. The digging, planting, weeding, and other repetitive tasks that are required of gardening are excellent forms of low-impact exercise, especially for people who find more vigorous exercise a challenge. Plus, physical exercise is a proven mood booster.

• Improve your satisfaction with life and reduce stress levels.

The mental activity involved in gardening may have a positive influence on the mind. Relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits of gardening.

Professors from the University of Texas and Texas A&M found that gardeners had significantly higher levels of "zest for life," levels of optimism, and overall resolution and fortitude than non-gardeners.

The effortless attention of gardening may even help improve depression symptoms and lower the risk of developing dementia. A recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other relaxing leisure activities.

Additionally, it might surprise you that gardening can also reduce your risk for osteoporosis, diabetes, and arthritis by improving your bones and joints, relieving pain and stiffness, helping you get enough physical activity, and allowing you to eat fresh produce. A number of studies have found that diabetes rates are lower in areas with community gardens, or places where backyard gardening is more common.

• Better nutrition.

The food you grow yourself is the freshest food you can eat. And home gardens filled with fruits and vegetables, provide the healthiest food you can eat. Not surprisingly, several studies have shown that gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than their peers. Studies of after-school gardening programs suggest that kids who garden are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. And they're a lot more adventurous about giving new foods a try.

If you don’t have a lot of room where you live, there are several community gardens located in Independence. Most of the community gardens have raised beds which are great for growing most vegetables during the spring, summer and fall seasons.

If you would like more information on any of the community gardens in Independence, contact Joanie Shover at 325-7185.

Larry Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.