Feb. 3, 2023 — Despite the boom in wellness culture seen in recent years, Americans continue to struggle with maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the long term. We’ve had more options than ever before, but something still isn’t working.
According to the CDC, 6 in 10 Americans have diet-related chronic illnesses — heart disease, strokes, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes — most of which are preventable through eating well and getting regular exercise.
So it might be time to think creatively and get our hands dirty.
For years, leaders of the Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) took notice of how many health benefits were brought about by planting seeds and tending crops, but they had no real way of scientifically measuring it. From 2017 to 2019, environmental health expert Jill Litt, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder, studied 37 DUG-run community gardens in Colorado to see if gardening could reduce the common health risks associated with diet-related chronic illnesses.
The randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard for measuring how effective new interventions are — found that these beginner-level gardeners saw significant increases in their fiber intake and time spent doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Researchers also saw an overall decrease in anxiety among gardeners, especially in those who started the program with higher stress levels.
The garden, Litt says, is a solution that’s an intentional departure from medicine.
“It gets you away from the doctor wagging his or her finger at you and telling you that you need to lose weight and eat better because we know that doesn’t change behavior,” says Litt.
The garden also provides a social element that’s crucial for those who want to spend time with others while they work but aren’t into Soul Cycle or Barry’s Bootcamp.
Doug Wooley, 42, who has spina bifida, a spinal birth defect that can cause physical impairments, has been working in the garden for the past 10 years, with many spent at the Denver Urban Gardens.
Wooley uses walkers and other mobility devices. As a child, he hated going to physical therapy; staring at the same four walls and medical posters week after week with little social interaction wasn’t a particularly motivational environment, he says.
When I go out to the garden, I’m doing essentially all the things that I was doing in physical therapy, except it’s exciting and fun,” Wooley says.
And on top of the benefits to his mobility, he gets the added bonuses of watching his plants grow, connecting with the food he eats, and sharing that experience with a group of people doing the same thing.
Litt sees a bright future for gardening as a lifestyle intervention, but she hopes that the discussion can shift away from a focus on weight and obesity. For her, going to a doctor’s office, getting on a scale, and being told that you’re overweight doesn’t address any core issues.
“I would love for us to focus on the building blocks to having a healthy life and active lifestyle,” says Litt. “And if you have a bigger body type, that’s OK, but let’s figure out how to eat well, have some balance, and relieve stress, and maybe these things together become the cocktail we need.”