Getting our hands dirty has multiple benefits! It’s gardening season.

Dear Wise Living,

I want to include my dad in our gardening efforts this season. Gardening is my passion and I want to share it with him.  Since the passing of my mom, the love of his life, he could really benefit from a positive distraction, not to mention some fresh air.   Can you share your thoughts on this idea?

Green Thumb

Dear Green Thumb,

I am very sorry about the loss of your mom.  As you care for your dad, please remember to be intentional about your own self-care.

What a perfect idea to get your dad involved in something that you already enjoy.   He may have some interesting ideas as to how to creatively map out the garden. By letting him take the lead it may help him feel empowered.   Perhaps by planting a special section of favorite flowers that your mom cherished would be meaningful to your dad.  It may serve as a kind of legacy garden for both of you.  And you’re spot on about the value of fresh air.   Even if Dad wants to simply sit and observe your activity and converse with you, it is certainly better than being indoors.

We wait a long time in this part of the country to put that spade shovel into the rain soaked dirt!  And yes, many of us find great solace and satisfaction in gardening.  Most of the health benefits of gardening may be fairly obviously.  You mentioned one of them: the opportunity to simply be outdoors for an extended period of time.   The sun exposure, depending on what time of day you are outside, can easily creep up on us.  Take time to apply sunscreen at least thirty minutes before going outdoors.   According to the University of North Carolina newsletter titled, UNC Health Talk*, gardening can give us a boost of vitamin D.  “A healthy dose of vitamin D increases your calcium levels, which benefits your bones and immune system. Exposure to sunlight helped older adults achieve adequate amounts of vitamin D.”  When we think about older adults and sun exposure, we typically want to lovingly shield them from the sun.  The opposite is true.   In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, (NIH) we learn that, optimal vitamin D status is important for overall health and well-being, particularly in the elderly. Although vitamin D synthesis in the skin declines with age, exposure to sunlight still seems to help older-aged adults to achieve adequate serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25OHD) levels.”

Beyond healthy sun exposure, gardening provides a benefit for our heart too. Digging, planting and weeding burns calories and strengthens this vital organ.   “There are physical benefits from doing the manual labor of gardening,” explains UNC Health internal medicine physician Robert Hutchins, MD, MPH. “It’s hard work to garden, and it provides some cardiovascular benefit.”

Additionally, there are health benefits that actually exist in the soil!  Getting dirt under our nails while digging in the ground can ultimately impact our happiness.  In fact, inhaling M. vaccae, a healthy bacteria that lives in soil, can increase levels of serotonin and therefore reduce anxiety. 

We typically don’t think about hand strength in our everyday activities or even while enjoying our hobbies. But, gardening can improve hand strength.  It makes sense.  All of that digging, planting, and pulling only makes our hands and fingers stronger. 

Gardens are like a blank canvas so it’s no surprise that the creative benefits of mapping out a garden, doing the planting, weeding and watering all contribute to the ultimate joy of gardening and hopefully harvesting too!  Many completely lose track of time with this or any hobby, which ultimately boosts brain health too.  When we see our efforts grow in our garden, it gives us confidence.  We feel accomplished.  If we have planted vegetables, we can also enjoy the fruits of our labor and share them with friends and neighbors too, providing a beautiful connection with others.

Getting our hands dirty while gardening has proven health benefits but the spiritual and relational benefits of sharing this activity with your dad will hopefully build beautiful memories this year and in gardening seasons to come.

Take special care.

Dave Ferguson, MD., Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)® MD, NSCA-CPT is Managing Director of IKOR in the Greater Green Bay area.  He passionately provides advocacy and life care management services to seniors and individuals with disabilities.   He can be reached at  For more information about Ikor visit

*UNC Health Talk, 8 Surprising Health Benefits of Gardening, May, 18, 2020