Gardening May Decrease Cancer Risk and Improve Mental Health

On January 4, a randomized study by the University of Colorado Boulder revealed that community gardening could bring great health results. By increasing fiber intake and physical activity, gardening can decrease cancer and chronic disease risk while also benefiting mental health by minimizing stress and anxiety.

With the new year, everyone sets new goals. It can be getting a job promotion, getting more physical activity, exercising, or even getting more sunlight. A recent study found a prominent discovery that can allow you to fulfill your new year's resolutions: gardening.

The American Cancer Society conducted its first randomized, controlled trial involving a gardening community, revealing that individuals who began gardening took in more fiber while also getting more physical activity. These two connections decrease the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. The study also found that more physical activity and exposure to sunlight diminished stress and anxiety.

These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases, and mental health disorders," shared Jill Litt, senior author and professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder.

Litt focused on researching methods to decrease health risks, prominently among low-income circles. She focuses on cost-effective and sustainable ways to help individuals, and gardening became a great source of physical activity and hobby. “No matter where you go, people say there’s just something about gardening that makes them feel better," said Litt, who also works as a researcher with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

She continued that the exact scientific reasoning behind this is difficult to prove, and without firm proof, it is difficult to get support for new programs. Certain more minor research has shown that those who garden are more prone to eating fruits and vegetables, often leading to healthier bodies and weight. It is difficult to predict whether healthier people garden more or if gardening leads to health benefits. In the past, three studies have utilized the randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of scientific research.

The past studies, however, didn't look categorically at gardening. To focus on the gardening community, Litt called 291 non-gardening individuals in Denver with an average age of 41. Around one third of the participants were Hispanic and more than 50 percent of individuals came from low-income families. Following last spring, half were placed in a community gardening group, and the rest were put into a control group required to wait a year before beginning gardening.

The first group was given complimentary gardening tools, including seeds, an introductory gardening course through the nonprofit Denver Urban Gardens program, and a study partner. Both groups had to conduct surveys about their nutritional consumption and mental health journey while also monitoring their body measurements and wearing activity monitors.

When the fall season arrived, it was shown that those in the gardening group were intaking 1.4 grams more fiber on average compared to those in the control group. This was about a 7 percent increase. The study authors said that fiber produces a significant impact on our inflammatory and immune responses, allowing our bodies to metabolize in a healthier way. This leads to a healthier gut, influencing diabetes and certain cancers positively.

Medical professionals recommend around 25 to 38 grams of fiber intake per day, and the average adult eats less than 16 grams. An increase of one gram of fiber can have large, positive effects on health, shared co-author James Hebert, the director of the University of South Carolina’s cancer prevention and control program.

Aside from an increase in fiber intake, the gardening group's physical activity also heightened by about 42 minutes per week. Public health agencies advocate for at least 150 minutes of physical activity every week, yet the average American only meets a quarter of that time. With simply two or three visits to the garden, participants reached 28 percent of the physical activity recommendation. Physical activity can benefit not only your muscles and bones but also your brain. It can improve sleep, reduce many chronic health conditions, and help with weight control.

Participants also noticed a positive influence on their mental health, with their stress and anxiety diminishing. Those individuals who came into the study most stressed and anxious saw a significant change in their mental health. The research also established that even beginning gardeners can grab health benefits in their first gardening season and continue to obtain benefits as they gain more experience.

Linda Appel Lipsius, the executive director of Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), said the results were not too surprising. It’s transformational, even life-saving, for so many people,” said Lipsius. DUG is a 43-year-old nonprofit organization that assists around 18,000 individuals annually with community gardening tips. 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,” said Litt.

She continued that gardening is indeed good, but gardening in a community may bring added benefits. It’s not just about the fruits and vegetables. It’s also about being in a natural space outdoors together with others.

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