Though research on gardening abounds, the researchers wrote that they were able to find only three other studies that tested gardening’s effects on disease risk factors by assigning participants randomly to groups who did and didn’t garden, then comparing their health.
In this case, the researchers ran a study at 37 community gardens in Denver and Aurora, Colo. After raising awareness of the program in a variety of neighborhoods, they recruited those on the waiting lists for the study. All 291 participants were adults and had not gardened within the last two years. More than half were from low-income households.
The group assigned to garden was provided with a garden plot, seeds, seedlings and an introduction to gardening course. Those assigned to the non-gardening group were offered the same deal during the next gardening season. Participants were all given health surveys that looked at such factors as body weight, waist circumference, physical activity and diet.
During the study, researchers found, those who gardened ate more fruit and vegetables than their counterparts, increasing their consumption by about 1.13 servings per day. They consumed 1.4 grams more fiber a day than the control group, and increased their fiber intake by 7 percent over the course of the program. They were slightly more active, too, increasing their moderate to vigorous physical activity during the study period. Gardeners also reported less stress and anxiety than their non-gardening counterparts.
Though the gains were modest, researchers said that they are the types of small changes recommended by experts as a way to prevent the risk of chronic diseases. Smoking, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle all contribute to that risk.
“These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” said Jill Litt, a professor of environmental health at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the paper’s senior author, in a news release.
The researchers, who received funding from the American Cancer Society, said it’s worth looking further into community gardening as a potential health intervention in urban areas.