Is gardening the secret to a long and healthy life?

By Clive Blazey, Founder of The Diggers Club

Is the greatest threat to our healthy lifestyle and the move away from gardening caused by our modern lifestyle?

If you asked people to choose between the two totems of modernity, the smart phone or the motor car, you might be surprised to find that the smart phone, which is just 10 years old, might be preferred to that of the car by a significant portion of the population. Now what has this got to do with our longevity?

It’s no surprise that the people who live the longest are the furthest distance from our highly-urbanised, modern lifestyle, the big cities. It is the Okinawans, who inhabit a small southern island off the Japanese main island of Honshu, that have the longest life expectancy. Social scientists attribute this to at least five factors; their cooperative and caring relationships, their positive attitude to life, their incredibly healthy diet as well as gardening, says Dan Buether writing for National Geographic.

Eat only till you are 80% full

Of course one cannot be that exact about the causes, it’s probably a combination of all of them. The most important ‘plus’ for Okinawans is not just that they are long-lived, but they tend to be vigorous and healthy right through into old age (no nursing home for them!).

Gardening is a widespread hobby in Okinawa, providing three of the most important elements of excellent health; exercise, sunlight, and nutritious food.

70% of their diet comes from the high-antioxidant carbohydrate, purple sweet potatoes, with vegetables and rice accounting for over 82% of their diet with almost no fats, red meat, and surprisingly just a little fish. The wisest of the old follow a rule ‘Eat only till you are 80% full’.

Your diet should avoid processed food and sugar

The other longest-livers around the world, as described by the highest number of centenarians, are from rural rather than urban parts of Sardinia, Greece, Costa Rica, and a Seventh Day Adventist colony in California.

What is notable is that all of these longest-livers come from mainly energetic outdoor communities where gardening is the major hobby and that there is less pressure to consume modern, processed food, particularly sugar.

It’s advertising (probably on fast foods) that changes everything. We can infer that spending time on the couch watching TV instead of being outdoors subjects people to advertising pressure, which distorts our preferences from growing our own food to buying packaged food.

The healthiest food is harvested straight from the soil, fresh and unadulterated which is never advertised, because it can’t be branded and privately owned, unlike processed food which is packaged, branded and advertised.

To attract buyers, it is altered by adding sugar or fat, packaged, branded and advertised, increasing its price and altering its nutrition so that it cannot be compared with raw fresh and healthy food. It’s so effective that about 95% of the food we eat is now grown for us.

And what has this got to do with cars and mobile phones? Well, in capitalist countries it is our media which causes the greatest social upheaval, accelerating the move from the country to the inner cities. Exercise, sunshine and the ability to connect with nature are lost in the frenzied rush for stimulation. The car now jams our cities, the built environment prevents natural exercise and sunlight, and our smart phones try to make up for our loss of social connectedness.

Gross national happiness not gross national product

City life is governed by the pleasure principle – me first, second and third, which is in conflict with the nurturing impulses of gardening.

The political right encourages individual rights just when climate change needs communal cooperation to bring carbon back into balance. We must all learn to nurture the planet, just as we nurture our children, otherwise the catastrophic impacts of our neglect are left for our children and grandchildren.

Maintaining a positive attitude

One of the most important elements of longevity is maintaining a positive attitude, but how can that be maintained when all our politicians talk about is gross national product, as if accounting were connected to a long, healthy life?

To attain a healthy long life means having lots of exercise and being connected to nature, but all our leaders talk about is tax cuts and power prices!

Now I am told that the life expectancy of people who have already reached 60 or 70 is 86 for men and 89 for women. That figure is advanced because once those that have passed away are deleted from the average age calculation, life expectancy lifts dramatically.

But if you are a gardener, that figure would be higher. Is there a finer model of a vigorous, passionately engaged 90-year-old than David Attenborough (or Peter Cundall)? Instead of controlling nature as our politicians encourage us to do, engage and connect with nature, just as passionate gardeners do.

Isn’t that the secret of a long and healthy life?

Clive Blazey (04/07/2018)

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Clive Blazey

Clive is the founder of The Diggers Club, a pioneer in the rescue of heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties and author of seven books on flower, vegetable and fruit gardening.

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