In the U.S., physicians and families alike are making efforts to fight the obesity epidemic, but an increasing reliance on technology, our national love of junk food, and lack of physical activity makes it a bit of an uphill battle. The typical American dieter makes four weight loss attempts every year, but placing severe limits on caloric intake is only a short term solution. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 75% of Americans aren’t eating their daily recommended doses of fruits and vegetables.
Whether family members need to lose the winter weight or simply want to live a healthier lifestyle and enjoy more time together, many experts are proposing a tactic that might surprise you: starting a family garden.
Statistics show that pre-teens and teens spend an average of six to nine hours per day looking at TV, computer, phone, and gadget screens. Those activities lend themselves to a sedentary lifestyle for kids and adults alike. But other promising data shows that families with kids are gardening far more now than they were just a decade ago. From 2008 to 2013, the National Gardening Association found that gardening activities among families with children increased by 25%. And in the spring of 2014, the number of people who gardened within the past 12 months amounted to 113.5 million.
This involvement has a huge impact in multiple areas. Scientific studies have proven that when children are involved in gardening, their fruit and vegetable intake — not surprisingly — increases. Taking part in the process allows them to enjoy the literal fruits (and veggies) of their labor and feel more connected to the produce they come across outside the home. Plus, preparing and eating nutrient-rich meals together as a family can develop a foundation of lifelong healthy eating habits and weight maintenance.
Gardening can even improve academic achievement. Multiple studies cited in the Review of Educational Research found that children who garden at school had a higher affinity for science. Another Chicago-based study found that just being near green spaces — in this case, seeing them from apartment windows — can help improve children’s self-discipline in educational settings. Even when gardening at home, the lessons learned there can translate into multiple educational areas. Parents can easily interweave nutrition lessons as you plant the backyard garden.
Plus, spending time in nature has been proven to produce calming effects in both children and adults. Parents of children with ADD and ADHD reported that “green activities” have a consistently positive effect on their kids’ symptoms. Children who don’t have these conditions can use gardening and other outdoor activities to work off excess energy, develop stronger immune systems, and just recharge.
For families that don’t have a large outdoor space to devote to gardening, other outdoor family activities can be a good substitute. Taking nature walks or biking trips can allow for both physical activity and appreciation of nature. Since 36 million Americans ages seven and up rode a bike at least six times in 2015, it’s a popular alternative or supplement to digging in the dirt.
But in many ways, gardening has those other activities beat. Not only is it physical and rewarding work that can promote better nutrition, but it’s a great way for children to feel connected to the world around them and engage all their senses. Sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch are all involved in gardening. And by allowing kids to have a direct effect on how their garden grows — by picking out seeds, planting and watering them, and helping to harvest and prepare them — that will set the stage for a balanced lifestyle that values both hard work and healthy food.
Although many children recognize produce at the supermarket, that’s often not enough to convince them to try (and stick with) these healthy foods. Gardening at home or school makes kids much more likely to consume fruits and vegetables. More than 30% of schools in the U.S. now have gardens (a 12% increase from 2006), but whether kids garden at school, in a community garden, or right in their own backyard, they’re bound to live healthier lives — and their parents will too!