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A new study reveals a surprising health benefit for people who garden — and it's not just about fruits and veggies

Participants received a free garden plot, seeds and seedlings, and an introductory garden course.

Community gardening

Photo Credit: iStock

A study from the University of Colorado found that people who garden are healthier than those who don't, as they're eating more fiber and getting more physical activity.

How did the study work? 

Researchers from the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder completed what the school touted as the "first-ever randomized controlled trial" looking at the health effects of community gardening. The results were published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal in 2023.

Jill Litt, the senior co-author of the paper and a professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, recruited 291 non-gardening adults from the Denver area. In the spring, half of them were assigned to a community gardening group, and the other half were asked to wait one year before they started gardening. 

The gardening group received a free garden plot, seeds and seedlings, and an introductory garden course. Researchers tracked both groups periodically with surveys about their diets and mental health. They also wore activity monitors and participated in body measurements.

By fall, researchers discovered big differences between the two groups — those who were gardening were getting about 1.4 more grams of daily fiber compared to the non-gardening group. 

The gardening group also started moving more, increasing their activity levels by about 42 minutes per week. And the new gardeners reported a decrease in stress and anxiety levels — this was especially notable in those who came into the study the most stressed and anxious.

Why is this research important?

Taken together, all of these changes associated with gardening add up to big health benefits. Doctors recommend that adults get 25-38 grams of fiber per day, according to CU Boulder, but most people fall short at 16 grams. Just a small uptick in fiber intake can reap big rewards, though. 

"An increase of one gram of fiber can have large, positive effects on health," co-author and director of University of South Carolina's cancer prevention and control program James Hebert said in the news release from CU Boulder. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of those benefits include having more regular bowel movements, maintaining lower cholesterol levels and a healthy weight, and even living longer.

The increase in physical activity among the studied set of gardeners was also notable, as about 75% of the U.S. population falls short of the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week, the CU Boulder release noted. Gardeners in the study group met 28% of that requirement just by visiting their garden plot two to three times a week. 

Being active has a number of well-documented benefits, including improving brain health, helping to manage weight, reducing the risk of disease, and strengthening bones and muscles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the other benefits of gardening?

While this study is important in helping us to understand the health-related benefits of gardening, there is also a slew of other reasons to get your hands dirty this spring.

For one, it can save you money. 

"A mixed organic salad of this size would cost easily $15, whereas I get to enjoy it for the cost of seed and some hard work," one gardener said in the r/Frugal subreddit. 

Other gardeners enjoy how gardening helps them slow down and become more mindful.

It's also a win for the environment. Plant roots take in chemicals and heavy metals in the soil and also absorb airborne chemicals and bacteria, as Green Matters pointed out. Plants take in carbon dioxide and water and create oxygen. 

Green Matters also noted that growing your own fruits and veggies also reduces your environmental impact — you'll make fewer trips to the grocery store and can avoid buying produce that may have been transported from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Ready to start your garden? Here are some quick tips on how to save money when building a raised bed, keeping your garden free of pests without chemicals, and growing a massive amount of food in a small space.

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