International Journal of
and Public Health
Beneﬁts of Gardening Activities for Cognitive
Function According to Measurement of Brain Nerve
Growth Factor Levels
Sin-Ae Park 1, *, A-Young Lee 1, Hee-Geun Park 2and Wang-Lok Lee 3
1Department of Environmental Health Science, Sanghuh College of Life Science, Konkuk University,
Seoul 05029, Korea; email@example.com
2Sport Science Center, Daejeon 35021, Korea; firstname.lastname@example.org
3Department of Sport Science, Chugnam National University, Daejeon 34134, Korea; email@example.com
*Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel.: +82-2-450-0537
Received: 4 February 2019; Accepted: 26 February 2019; Published: 2 March 2019
The objective of this study was to determine the effects of gardening activities in senior
individuals on brain nerve growth factors related to cognitive function. Forty-one senior individuals
6.0 years) were recruited from the local community in Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, South Korea.
A 20-min low-to-moderate intensity gardening activity intervention, making a vegetable garden, was
performed by the subjects in a garden plot located on the Konkuk University (Seoul, South Korea)
campus. The gardening involved six activities including cleaning a garden plot, digging, fertilizing,
raking, planting/transplanting, and watering. To determine the effects of the gardening activities on
brain nerve growth factors related to memory, blood samples were drawn twice from each subject
before and after the gardening activity by professional nurses. The levels of brain nerve growth
factors, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), vascular endothelial growth factor
(VEGF) and platelet derived growth factor (PDGF), were analyzed. Levels of BDNF and PDGF
were signiﬁcantly increased after the gardening activity. This study revealed a potential beneﬁt of
gardening activities for cognitive function in senior individuals.
complementary and medicine; exercise intervention; horticultural therapy; socio horticulture;
Brain function and memory decline in the aging process [
]. The volume and weight of the
brain decrease at a rate of approximately 5% per decade after 40 years of age, with the actual rate of
decline possibly increasing with older age, particularly > 70 years [
]. The hippocampus is a small
organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe, and is associated primarily with memory [
A large hippocampal size is associated with good memory and cognitive function; however, atrophy
of the hippocampus is associated with the development of dementia [
]. In Alzheimer ’s disease and
other forms of dementia, the hippocampus is one of the ﬁrst regions of the brain to exhibit damage
such as short-term memory loss and disorientation [8,9].
Previous studies have reported that participation in physical activity is associated with increased
memory and cognition [
]. Acute aerobic physical activity has been shown to improve cognitive
], short-term memory and long-term memory [
]. Long-term cardiovascular
exercise has been associated with improvement in short-term and long-term memory [20–22].
Brain nerve growth factors related to memory and cognitive function, such as brain-derived
neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), are currently considered
to be key proteins that are up-regulated after exercise [
] and can promote cell proliferation
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 760; doi:10.3390/ijerph16050760 www.mdpi.com/journal/ijerph
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 760 2 of 9
and growth, as well as neuronal development and functioning [
]. Moreover, platelet-derived
growth-factor (PDGF) has been shown to promote blood vessel growth and neuronal survival
Exercise has been shown to increase BDNF expression in the hippocampus and 0-cortical
, and increases in BDNF levels have been associated with exercise-induced beneﬁts
in hippocampal-dependent memory .
Previous studies have reported that gardening can be considered aerobic and muscular
]. A 12-week gardening intervention improved physical functional ability, the immune
system, muscle strength and ﬂexibility, and reduced blood pressure, waist circumference,
and cholesterol levels [
]. Various common gardening activities, such as digging, raking,
planting/transplanting, weeding, watering and harvesting, are considered to be low-to-moderate
intensity physical activities in seniors [
]. Moreover, the beneﬁts of cognitive function and
memory resulting from gardening intervention as a physical activity have been described. For example,
a 20-session horticultural therapy program, designed with common gardening activities, signiﬁcantly
improved cognitive function in senior individuals with dementia [
]. Another study reported
improved cognitive function in senior individuals with dementia who participated in an 18-session
horticultural therapy program compared with a control group .
However, there is insufﬁcient research examining the effects of gardening as a physical activity
on cognitive function according to measurement of brain nerve growth factor levels. Accordingly,
the objective of this study was to measure changes in key proteins related to cognitive function, such as
BDNF, PDGF, and VEGF, through short-term, low-to-moderate intensity gardening activity in elderly
individuals > 65 years of age.
2. Materials and Methods
To recruit subjects aged over 65 years, the researchers visited community and welfare centers
located in Gwangjin-gu, Seoul, South Korea. After providing an explanation about the study and a
ﬂyer, including study objectives, procedure, measurements and schedule, 41 individuals aged over
65 years volunteered to participate in this study. Inclusion criteria were that participants were aged
over 65 years, with no physical disability, and no severe chronic disease. Requirements for participation
in this study were fasting for 9 h before blood sampling and completing a 20 min gardening activity.
Informed written consent was obtained from each subject before starting the study.
A questionnaire, including questions regarding age, sex, current diseases and medications,
was completed by the subjects. Before starting the gardening activity, each subject’s body composition,
including body weight (g), lean mass (g), fat mass (g), percent fat (%), and body mass index (BMI),
were measured using a body fat analyzer (ioi 353; Jawon Medical, Gyeongsan, South Korea). Height
was measured using an anthropometer (Ok7979; Samhwa, Seoul, South Korea) without shoes.
On completion of the study, the subjects received an incentive (approximately $20 USD). This
study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of Konkuk University (7001355-201711-HR-212).
A 20-min gardening activity intervention with low-to-moderate intensity gardening activities was
designed as a physical activity intervention, with an average of 3.5 metabolic equivalents (METs) based
on previous studies (Table 1) [
]. The intensity of physical activity can be expressed as METs [
METs > 3 to 6 indicate moderate-intensity physical activity, while METs < 3 represent low intensity [
In a previous study, gardening activities, such as digging, raking, and fertilizing, were considered to be
moderate-intensity physical activities in individuals aged over 65 years [
]. Gardening activities, such
as planting/transplanting and watering using watering cans, were low-intensity physical activities in
older adults aged over 65 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least
30 min of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days of the week for health maintenance and
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 760 3 of 9
In the present study, the gardening activity intervention consisted of six activities, including
cleaning a garden plot (3.4 METs) for 2 min, digging (4.5 METs) for 5 min, fertilizing (4.0 METs)
for 3 min, raking (3.4 METs) for 3 min, transplanting plants (2.9 METs) for 5 min, and watering
using a watering can (2.8 METs) for 2 min (Table 1) [
]. The gardening activity was performed in a
garden plot previously prepared on the Konkuk University campus. The subjects visited the Konkuk
University campus once for this study and were assigned to a garden plot (1
1.8 m) for the gardening
activity. The subjects were asked to wear comfortable clothes and shoes for gardening. Weather
conditions during gardening were temperature 5.6
C and relative humidity 50.0% (Meteorological
Administration of South Korea).
Gardening activities, making an vegetable garden plot performed by the subjects in the study
of beneﬁts gardening activities for memory according to measurement of brain growth factor levels.
Activity Mean Time (min) Description Estimated MET Values 1
Cleaning garden plot 2 Removing weeds and fallen leaves in the garden plot 3.4
Digging a 1m (w)
1.8 m (l) garden plot with a shovel (1.3 kg)
Spreading fertilizer using a bucket (22 cm (d) ×9 cm (h);
average 8.1 L) on the garden plot and then mixing it into the
soil using a shovel
Raking 3 Raking the garden plot using a hand rake (0.9 kg), then
making four furrows using a hand rake (0.9 kg) 3.4
Transplanting plant 5 Transplanting lettuce plants (average 23 plants) into the
garden plot using a hand trowel (0.1 kg) 2.9
Watering using a watering can 2 Watering plants using a watering can (average 5.7 L) 2.8
(Total 20 min) (Mean 3.5 METs)
1MET = metabolic equivalents.
To measure changes in brain nerve growth factors that are related to hippocampal blood ﬂow,
volume, and memory performance, BDNF, PDGF, and VEGF were analyzed. Three professional nurses
obtained a 7 mL blood sample twice from each subject before and after the 20 min gardening activity,
respectively. The blood samples were subsequently stored in vacutainers packed in ice and transferred
to a laboratory at Chungnam National University (Daejeon, South Korea) for analysis. The blood
was centrifuged and the serum was stored in microcentrifuge tubes (Eppendorf, USA) in a freezer at
C. Factors were measured according to protocols supplied by the manufacturer, performed using
sandwich ELISA kits for BDNF, PDGF, and VEGF (AbCAM systems, Cambridge, MA, USA). Readings
were performed using a microplate reader (Bio-Rad, Hercules, CA, USA) adjusted to a wavelength of
2.3. Data Analysis
Demographic information was analyzed using spreadsheet software in Excel (Ofﬁce 2016;
Microsoft Crop., Redmond, WA, USA). To analyze differences in factors, such as BDNF, PDGF, and
VEGF, before and after the gardening activity program, a paired t-test was performed. To compare
gender difference for the BDNF, PDGF, and VEGF, independent samples t-test was used; p< 0.05
was considered to be statistically signiﬁcant. Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS (24.0 for
windows; IBM Corp., Armonk, NY, USA).
3.1. Demographic Information
The characteristics of the subjects who participated in this study are summarized in Table 2.
The mean age of the subjects was 76.6
6.0 years, with males and females comprising 31.7% and
68.3% of the cohort, respectively. The mean BMI of the subjects was 25.4
. which is in the
overweight range, and 48.8% of the subjects had at least one chronic disease.
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 760 4 of 9
Table 2. Demographic characteristics of the participants (n= 41).
Variable Gardening Intervention Group
Male 13 (31.7) 1
Female 28 (68.3)
Age (years) 76.6 ±6.0 1
Height (cm) 154.7 ±8.1
Body weight (kg) 60.3 ±10.1
Body mass index (kg/m2)25.4 ±3.8
Lean mass (kg) 37.6 ±6.1
Fat mass (kg) 19.6 ±7.2
Percent fat (%) 31.5 ±8.7
Age-adjusted maximum heart rate (beats/min) 143.4 ±6.0
Diabetes 7 (28.0)
Hyperlipidemia 5 (20.0)
Musculoskeletal 4 (16.0)
Genito-urinary 2 (8.0)
Respiratory 2 (8.0)
Gastrointestinal 2 (8.0)
Thyroid 2 (8.0)
Cerebral infarction 1 (4.0)
Blood pressure 24 (52.2)
Diabetes mellitus 7 (15.2)
Cholesterol 6 (13.0)
Antiarthritic 4 (8.7)
Thyroid 2 (4.4)
Gastrointestinal 2 (4.4)
Prostate 1 (2.2)
1Data presented as mean ±standard deviation or n(%).
3.2. Levels of the Brain Nerve Growth Factors
A gardening activity with low-to-moderate intensity, making an vegetable garden, improved
levels of the brain nerve growth factors BDNF and PDGF, which are related to memory, in senior
individuals who participated in this study (Table 3). There was no signiﬁcant difference between male
and female participants for the brain nervous growth factors (Table 4).
The effects of a 20-min gardening activity program on brain nerve growth factor levels in
senior individuals (n= 41).
Measurement 1BDNF (ng/mL) PDGF (pg/mL) VEGF (pg/mL)
Pre-intervention 53.75 ±21.49 3477.46 ±1171.82 338.69 ±171.64
Post-intervention 58.26 ±23.40 3945.80 ±1372.26 325.83 ±145.98
p20.038 * 0.001 ** 0.126 NS
BDNF = brain-derived neurotrophic factor; PDGF = platelet-derived growth factor; VEGF = vascular endothelial
growth factor. 2NS, *, ** nonsigniﬁcant or signiﬁcant at p< 0.05 or < 0.01, respectively.
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 760 5 of 9
The effects of a 20-min gardening activity program on brain nerve factor levels of senior
individuals by gender.
Variable Male (n= 13) Female (n= 28) p1
Pre-intervention 58.7 ±20.0 51.5 ±22.1 0.362 NS
Post-intervention 67.2 ±26.1 54.3 ±21.5 0.132 NS
Pre-intervention 3531.2 ±1052.7 3450.6 ±1252.5 0.863 NS
Post-intervention 4464.5 ±1318.8 3686.4 ±1355.7 0.146 NS
Pre-intervention 375.2 ±258.4 322.6 ±119.4 0.405 NS
Post-intervention 364.5 ±207.0 308.8 ±110.6 0.298 NS
1Independent samples t-test was used to compare means at p< 0.05. NS, Nonsigniﬁcant at p< 0.05.
BDNF is a member of the neurotrophin family of factors that supports neural survival, growth
and synaptic plasticity, and is highly concentrated in the hippocampus and cortex [
decreased levels of these factors have been associated with age-related hippocampal dysfunction and
memory impairment, increased BDNF levels resulting from aerobic exercise appears to ameliorate
hippocampal deterioration and improve memory function [
]. Habitual physical activity is
associated with BDNF. In a well-designed randomized controlled trial of 1-year duration of exercise
training involving 120 healthy senior individuals, Erickson et al. reported that aerobic exercise
increased serum BDNF levels and spatial memory [
]. Another randomized controlled trial also
demonstrated an increase in resting BDNF levels after 6 months of aerobic exercise, and cognitive
function improved signiﬁcantly in healthy elderly subjects [
]. In this study, the 20-min gardening
activity intervention with low-to-moderate intensity as a physical activity intervention led to increased
BDNF concentration in the blood level of the participants. The increase of this key protein,
BDNF, by gardening activity intervention can promote memory by increasing cell proliferation
and growth, as well as neuronal development and functioning in the hippocampus and cortical
Additionally, a 5-week moderate-intensity aerobic training program resulted in a signiﬁcant
increase in resting plasma BDNF concentrations in healthy young men [
]. Serum BDNF
concentrations did not signiﬁcantly change during 10 min of moderate exercise in the warm-up period
in healthy male athletes; however, serum BDNF concentrations signiﬁcantly increased following a
ramp test to exhaustion. The increases in BDNF were positively related with exercise-induced changes
in anterior hippocampal volume. BDNF is a crucial mediator of exercise-induced neuroplasticity [
The beneﬁcial effects of exercise on cognitive function were inhibited when blocking the action of
BDNF signaling in the hippocampus .
PDGF has been highlighted as a potential new player in neurovascular crosstalk [
has been shown to promote blood vessel growth and neuronal survival [
]. In previous studies
in the ﬁeld of exercise, expression of the PDGF gene in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells
increased after 30 min of cycling at 80% of peak oxygen uptake in healthy men [
]. Serum levels of
PDGF increased signiﬁcantly from 1700 pg/mL to 4640 pg/mL after an average of 17 min of physical
]. Accordingly, this study showed similar results to the previous physical exercise studies.
The gardening activity intervention as a physical activity could increase PDGF gene levels, promoting
vessel growth and neuronal survival [27,29].
In contrast, there was no signiﬁcant improvement of VEGF levels in this study. VEGF is a
hypoxia-inducible protein that promotes the formation and growth of blood vessels, and has also been
associated with improved cognition [
]. VEGF is expressed in multiple cells and tissues, including
smooth and skeletal muscle, endothelial cells, macrophages and glial cells [
Voss et al.
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019,16, 760 6 of 9
that increases in VEGF concentration made the brain more resistant to functional and structural
]. Serum levels of VEGF increased signiﬁcantly immediately after an average of
17 min of physical exercise [
]. Acute physical exercise increased serum levels of VEGF immediately
after and 2 h post-exercise [
]. More studies would be necessary to verify the effects of gardening
Participants in the present study exhibited signiﬁcantly increased levels of the brain nerve growth
factors BDNF and PDGF by performing 20-min gardening activities with low to moderate intensity.
This study revealed the potential of a short-term gardening activity for memory improvement in senior
individuals and provided scientiﬁc evidence of the therapeutic mechanisms of gardening for memory.
Future studies need to measure the changes in brain nerve growth factors in a long-term gardening
activity intervention to verify the effects on memory. A follow-up study would be interesting to
determine the effect continuance time for brain nerve growth factors and memory by gardening
intervention. Moreover, future study needs to verify the therapeutic mechanisms of gardening
intervention for brain nerve growth factors, rather than only focusing on the effects of gardening
intervention as a physical activity. It would be valuable to compare differences among age ranges,
between the sexes, and among subjects with different types of diseases and/or disabilities.
S.-A.P. contributed to the experimental design, data acquisition, statistical analysis,
interpretation of results, and manuscript preparation. A-Y.L. contributed to the experimental design, data
acquisition, statistical analysis, and manuscript preparation. H.-G.P. and W.-L.L. contributed to analyze blood
samples and data analysis.
This work was performed with the support of “Young Researcher Program (Project title: Determining
the Effects of Horticultural Activity Program as a Physical Activity for Improving Cognitive Function of Elderly.
Project No. NRF-2017R1C1B5076478)”, National Research Foundation of Korea, Republic of Korea.
Acknowledgments: This paper was supported by the KU Research Professor Program of Konkuk University.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The authors declare no conﬂict of interest.
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