How Gardening Can Slash Your Cancer Risk, According to a New Study
This might inspire you to get outside and pick up a new hobby.
Gardeners are in for some good news: Your hobby has significant health benefits. While it's great to get outside, work with your hands, and ultimately cultivate growth for a number of reasons, a new study found that working in a community garden—one that's shared with others—can actually slash your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Wondering how this happens? Read on to find out what researchers discovered, and why you might want to pick up some seeds and a shovel.
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Investigators wanted to know why gardeners just seem to "feel better."
Researchers at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder were investigating ways reduce disease risk, and senior study author Jill Litt, PhD, professor in the department of environmental studies at CU Boulder, was particularly interested in gardening.
"No matter where you go, people say there's just something about gardening that makes them feel better," Litt, who is also a researcher with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, said in a press release.
A handful of scientific studies have looked into gardening, but none have singled out community gardening. Litt used this opportunity to "fill the gap" in research and understand whether healthy people just like to garden, or if the hobby actually has a positive impact on health.
The gardening group reported positive health benefits.
The new study, funded by the American Cancer Society and published in Lancet Planetary Health on Jan. 4, followed participants who hadn't gardened in the past two years. Half of the group worked at community gardens in Denver and Aurora, Colorado, while the other half was instructed to wait a year before gardening.
Individuals in both groups wore activity monitors, had their body measurements taken, and took periodic health surveys that asked about stress, anxiety, diet, and physical activity.
When compared with the control group, those who participated in the community gardens ate more fruits and veggies and felt lower stress and anxiety. The community gardeners also consumed more fiber and exercised more, both of which are "pertinent to the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases," the study authors wrote.
"These findings provide concrete evidence that community gardening could play an important role in preventing cancer, chronic diseases and mental health disorders," Litt said in the press release.
Gavin Dawson, PA-C, founder and lead instructor of Global Emergency Medics, who wasn't involved with the study, highlighted the fact that gardening is an accessible way to achieve positive results.
"This study is an excellent example of how a simple, low-cost intervention such as gardening can positively impact both physical and mental health," he tells Best Life. "Of course, we can't say that gardening cures cancer, but it could suggest that leading certain lifestyles reduces the risk of cancer, in the long run."
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Experts emphasize the importance of fiber and food choices.
Those in the gardening group were eating roughly 1.4 more grams of fiber than the non-gardening group, with authors stressing the "profound effect" fiber has on your overall health. Fiber is involved in inflammatory and immune responses, affecting our metabolism and gut health. It also directly affects our chances of being diagnosed with diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
"An increase of one gram of fiber can have large, positive effects on health," co-author James Hebert, director of University of South Carolina's cancer prevention and control program, said in the press release.
Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse and contributing writer at Assisted Living Center, who was not affiliated with the study, points out that gardeners tend to "eat what they grow," as well, which can impact chronic disease risk.
"They may choose to consume organic whole foods from their backyard over store-bought processed foods, which can increase cancer risk if consumed consistently and in excess for extended periods," she explains. "Homegrown produce simply isn't adulterated with the pesticides and industrial chemicals or compounds noted throughout the years to wreak havoc on the body."
Gardening keeps you active and gets you outside.
Exercise, too, is important for overall health and disease prevention, researchers said. Study participants who gardened increased their activity levels by 42 minutes each week, according to the press release. At least 150 minutes of physical activity is recommended each week—and community gardeners achieved 28 percent of this goal in just two to three weekly visits.
But while gardening is a low-impact way to stay active, Litt also notes that community gardens encourage people to get outside. And according to Gary Soffer, MD, FAAP, director of the integrative medicine program at Smilow Cancer Hospital and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, there are undeniable health benefits associated with this as well.
"We have known for generations that exposing oneself to nature is good for the spirit and the mind," he tells Best Life. "Modern science is starting to show that it may even impact our physiology and risk for disease. This article demonstrates that nature is accessible everywhere and that community gardens are a unique opportunity to get that exposure."
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The communal aspect might have something to do with the study's positive results.
Going further, health benefits were detected just one year after study participants picked up gardening, which gives Litt hope that these positive effects will only increase. And while gardening on its own offers many benefits, a shared garden might have even more of an impact.
"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," Litt said in the press release. "It's not just about the fruits and vegetables. It's also about being in a natural space outdoors together with others."