GPs devise new treatment to beat depression. It's called gardening

The ‘green gym’ provides exercise, therapeutic relaxation ... and it’s dirt cheap, says top medic

Doctors are to swap pills for the potting shed under plans to prescribe gardening on the NHS as a way to help patients beat depression.

Time spent planting, pruning and propagating can be more powerful than a dose of expensive drugs, according to Sir Richard Thompson, president of the Royal College of Physicians.

He claims the Government's health reforms will give GPs more choice in how to treat patients, and allow them the freedom to embrace the physical and mental health benefits of horticulture.

"Drug therapy can be really expensive, but gardening costs little and anyone can do it," said Sir Richard, who is a patron of Thrive, a national charity that provides gardening therapy.

The idea is the latest in a long line of offbeat ideas aimed at improving the nation's health, from dance lessons that can combat obesity to sending depressed people on camping trips. Under the coalition's health reforms, clinical groups led by GPs will commission services and Sir Richard, who spoke out in favour of the changes, believes patients could benefit more from gardening classes than extra medication.

"I have, for some time, thought doctors should prescribe a course of gardening for people who come to them with depression or stroke," Sir Richard said. "The new commissioning structures about to be introduced might allow more innovative treatment approaches to be put in place, including the opportunity to try gardening rather than prescribe expensive drugs."

Too often, appointments are rushed and doctors are unable to spend time talking to their patients. "There are definite benefits to longer consultations – I would much rather a doctor had time to listen to patients and, instead of prescribing anti-depressants, prescribe a course of gardening."

Half an hour spent working in the garden can burn off some 200 calories, according to a study published last year. Sir Richard added: "I always wonder why people go to the gym when there is a 'green gym' outdoors for us all – and, what's more, it's free. Gardening burns off calories; makes joints supple and is fantastic exercise. It is a physical activity that has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of anxiety, depression and dementia."

Ian Rickman, who suffered a stroke at the age of 40 which left him paralysed down one side, has since been helped by Thrive.

He said: "At first, I burst into tears a lot. I couldn't see a way I would ever be able to live my life again, to walk out into a garden, let alone work in a garden. Therapy through gardening is a powerful tool – it helped me come to terms with my stroke, and it helped me learn how to live again."

The idea of gardening as a therapy is gaining high-profile backing from other quarters. The TV presenter Alan Titchmarsh has hailed horticulture for being "great as a therapy" that can "make a real difference to disabled people's lives". And the Health minister Paul Burstow added: "There is plenty of evidence to show the benefits of exercise on people's health and well-being. I'm sure gardening brings those benefits."

Just the job: How you can enjoy the health benefits of gardening this weekend:

Seedy business Sow vegetable seeds such as carrots, turnips, radishes, rocket and lettuce outside, and try some herbs in pots or trays.

First cut Take advantage of the warm weather to fire up the mower for the first time. It will help create a denser carpet for the summer.

Dead ends Finish pruning any roses, and remove dead leaves and old stalks from perennials. Cut back ivy.

Carry the can Consider buying a water butt: it may be a long dry year.

Water works Clear ponds and reinstall pumps and lights.

Heatwave Enjoy the sun!

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