Sir Richard Thompson was one of 12 speakers at the AIPH International Green City Conference 2014 held in central London on Tuesday, where he shared a number of studies which showed the benefits of both gardening and access to gardens and green space.
He said: "There are huge potential savings for the NHS. I suggest that we should prescribe more gardening and make more gardens. We want more green parks."
Thompson, who was doctor to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for 21 years before retiring from active practice, said the benefits of gardens to mental and physical health had been known for centuries. In Egypt court gardens were created for mental health and Japan has a long history of contemplation gardens. Later in the UK hospitals were designed within garden or park settings.
A 2002 study by Robert Ulrich found hospital gardens improved mood, and reduced stress for patients, families and staff but only if they contained biodiversity. A "sculpture bird garden" actually had a negative effect.
Thompson said that having ornamental plants indoors led to less use of painkillers and that just viewing plants improved people’s heart rate. He said trees and parks were important because they removed particulates from the air, another massive cause of disease.
He added: "Inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death. We must increase activity and improve the environment for people to exercise in. A lot of people think that backs are damaged by gardening but if you garden properly it increases the strength of your back. Some people say there’s a gym outside your window."
Thompson, who called gardening "complementary therapy" showed a list of activities and how many calories each burns. Shovelling burns more calories than going on a treadmill.
His comments come in the wake of a British Medical Journal (BMJ) investigation which showed that local authority-run parks and green spaces were among a range of cash-strapped departments getting part of the ringfenced public health budget, something which was criticised by physicians in the report. It was not clear if the money paid for general maintenance or more targeted efforts to improve health and boost exercise within parks.
During a question and answer session following Thompson’s speech Tony Leach from the London Parks and Green Spaces Forum questioned the negative views of some fellow physicians in the BMJ report.
Thompson said he had not yet read it but in general agreed he wanted to encourage GPs to see gardening and access to green space as important.
Thompson also said he was "pretty worried" about prisoners getting no sunlight, something which leads to a deficiency of vitamin D.
See the next issue of Horticulture Week for more AIPH conference reports.