People who live in the world’s Blue Zones—like Sardinia, Italy and Okinawa, Japan—have perfected the art of staying alive and well. Longevity expert Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones Kitchen, has made studying these superhumans and their wellness practices his life’s work. During a recent online master class on all things immortality (I mean, er, longevity) hosted by the Global Wellness Institute, Buettner said that one everyday outdoor activity sets the folks in the Blue Zones up for thriving well into their triple-digits: gardening.
“[In] all Blue Zones, people continue to garden even into their 90s and 100s,” said Buettner. “Gardening is the epitome of a Blue Zone activity because it’s sort of a nudge: You plant the seeds and you’re going to be nudged in the next three to four months to water it, weed it, harvest it. And when you’re done, you’re going to eat an organic vegetable, which you presumably like because you planted it.” That means gardening hits three of the nine Blue Zones pillars of healthy living in just one activity: one, move naturally; two, manage your stress; and three, eat mostly plants.
Gardening ticks the first box, “move naturally,” because it calls for incorporating movement into your daily tasks (like walking to work or biking to the grocery store) rather than, say, setting aside an hour aside for a HIIT workout. As Emily Kiberd, DC, founder of New York City’s Urban Wellness Clinic, previously told Well+Good: “Their lives are dynamic. Not a constant go, go, go, but a mix of movement, then rest.” You can water your plants, then dive back into the book you were reading or go back to work with the energy granted to you by a small burst of movement.
Meanwhile, research has also suggested that planting flowers, herbs, or fruits and veggies also plants the seeds for good mental health (fulfilling that second Blue Zones pillar). Gardening has been found to delay symptoms of dementia. Green exercise, aka doing physical activity while exposed to or in nature, has been linked to longevity, and there’s no discounting the fact that you’ll quickly rack up your 150 minutes of government-recommended exercise each week as you tend to your plant babies (which is also a win for your brain’s well-being).
Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that having a garden make it easier to access fresh, whole foods. As Buettner pointed out, planting your own fruits and veggies delivers you one step closer to actually eating them. What you do choose to plant and harvest will contribute to the overall diversity of your diet. That a big deal, when you consider that 2018 research found that people with the healthiest, most diverse guts ate 30 or more different types of plants per week. Plant your garden right, and at least a large fraction of the gut-friendly plants in your diet could be hand-grown.
If you don’t know the first thing about buying seeds, soil, fertilizer, and all that jazz, remember that gardening doesn’t have to be as complicated as purchasing an acre of farmland. For one thing, you could try sprouting: an easy, indoor method for growing your own grains, beans, legumes, or veggies. This also allows you to eat your plants when they’re young and thus more nutrient-dense than they would be otherwise.
If you have some backyard or balcony space and thus have more room for planting (either in the ground or in planters), consider this your motivation to brush up on the basics of not-killing-things and really do your research as far as what should be planted when, how the heck you should water your little seeds, and the perfect sunlight-to-shade ratio. To really feel like you’re becoming a student of the plant kingdom, you can even sign up for one of these online gardening workshops to make your love for the activity… blossom.
Should you find yourself feeling stuck, just remember: The people of the Blue Zones had to start from scratch to earn the green thumbs they have today. And hey, with any luck, you’ll have one hundred years to learn how to plant, care for, harvest, and eat the perfect tomato.
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