BOULDER, Colo. — Studies often point to the amazing benefits from spending time outside and connecting with nature. Here’s one more fantastic reason to put the smartphone down and enjoy the great outdoors. A new study reports that gardening could help reduce the risk of cancer, boost mental health and bring communities together.
Scientists say it leads to eating more fibrous fruits and vegetables, exercising more and building social connections. These positive elements of gardening can ease stress and anxiety and lower the risk of various illnesses, according to researchers from The University of Colorado Boulder.
Fiber helps strengthen immune responses, influencing everything from our metabolism to how healthy our gut is, having a profoundly positive impact on our bodies.
“These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders,” says study senior author Dr. Jill Litt, a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at the university, in a statement. Litt is also a researcher with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health. “No matter where you go, people say there’s just something about gardening that makes them feel better.”
How gardening benefits health over time
Up until now it has been known that those who garden tend to be a healthier weight and eat more fruit and vegetables. However, it has been unclear whether healthier people just tend to garden more or whether gardening benefits health.
To find the answer, Dr. Litt recruited 291 non-gardening adults with an average age of 41. They were all from the Denver area. More than a third were Hispanic and over half came from low-income households. Half were assigned to the community gardening group and the other half were put in a control group that was asked to wait one year to start gardening.
The gardening group received a free community garden plot, some seeds and seedlings, and an introductory gardening course. Both groups were surveyed about their nutritional intake and mental health. They also underwent body measurements and wore activity monitors. The group started in spring and by autumn those in the gardening group were eating on average 1.4 grams more fiber per day than the control group. This is an increase of around seven percent.
While doctors recommend about 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day, the average adult consumes less than 16 grams. “An increase of one gram of fiber can have large, positive effects on health,” says study co-author James Hebert, director of the University of South Carolina’s cancer prevention and control program.
The gardening group also upped their physical activity by around 42 minutes per week. Public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Only a quarter of the U.S population meets that standard, authors say.
With just two to three visits to the community garden a week, participants met 28 percent of that requirement. The new gardeners also saw their stress and anxiety levels decrease, with those who came in the most stressed and anxious seeing the biggest drop in mental health issues.
One recent study published by the American College of Cardiology shows that exercising regularly may actually do more for the heart health of those struggling with stress-related conditions. Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital report that habitual exercise offers double the cardiovascular benefits among people dealing with depression or anxiety in comparison to others without such diagnoses.
The study results highlighting the benefits of gardening are not a surprise to Linda Appel Lipsius, executive director of Denver Urban Gardens. The agency is a 43-year-old non-profit that helps about 18,000 people each year grow their own food in community garden plots. “It’s transformational, even life-saving, for so many people,” she comments.
Many of the participants live in areas where access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is extremely limited. Some are low-income immigrants now living in gardenless apartments. Having a garden plot allows them to grow food cheaply.
Community gardening can also build social connections within communities and offer a space for people to share their culture. With the freedom of growing your own food, people can grow their favorite fruits and vegetables from their home country and pass on traditional recipes to their neighbors.
“Even if you come to the garden looking to grow your food on your own in a quiet place, you start to look at your neighbor’s plot and share techniques and recipes, and over time relationships bloom,” adds Dr. Litt. “It’s not just about the fruits and vegetables. It’s also about being in a natural space outdoors together with others.”
Dr. Litt hopes that these findings about gardening benefits will encourage health professionals, policymakers and land planners to look to community gardens, and other spaces that encourage people to come together in nature, as a vital part of the public health system.
The study was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.
South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.