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Could gardening lower your risk of cancer? Researcher aims to find out

| Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, 8:55 p.m.

A green thumb may lower your risk of cancer.

Don't believe it? You're not the only one. Which is why a University of Colorado Boulder researcher is setting out to find hard evidence during a three-year clinical trial that will measure a variety of health factors in 312 participants who will be introduced to community gardening for the first time.

“We tend to intervene from the top down,” professor Jill Litt said of programs to improve physical inactivity and poor diets. “You need solutions from the ground up to meet people where they're at.”

Litt said that throughout more than a decade of researching community gardening, people regularly say they there's something about it that makes them feel better.

Her previous observational surveys found that gardeners eat 5.7 servings of fruits and vegetables on average per day compared to 3.9 for non-gardeners. They tend to have lower body mass index. They also report an average of 2.6 days of poor mental or physical health in the past month compared to the national average of 6.2 days.

She said it's likely because gardeners are less sedentary, often spending an average of two hours not sitting during the activity, and because they're eating the organic food they produce. There's some research to suggest that exposure to the microorganisms in the soil also benefits mental health, she said.

Additionally, the best ways to create a permanent shift to healthier behaviors are to get people in contact with nature and to have them build meaningful relationships, she said. Both of those are intrinsic to community gardens.

But it's unclear if people who are involved in community gardening are more likely to already have those traits or if community gardening itself facilitates a change in people.

To put some data behind it, Litt is measuring the body mass index, consumption of fruits and vegetables, stress and anxiety levels and other health measures of participants before planting, during harvesting and the following spring at community gardens mainly located in Denver and Aurora. The study will also use accelerometers worn by participants to measure physical activity levels.

There's been growing interest in this type of research with a handful of similar studies also receiving grants this year, she said. But Litt said her study is distinguished from the rest due to its gold standard for measurements, noting the accelerometers.

The results of these studies could have a great impact. First, data from it could be used to help convince clinicians about the benefits of community gardens. It could also help the gardens themselves.

In 2005, when Litt first started researching community gardens, there were about 42 gardens in the Denver area. Now there are 165 gardens, with 10 to 12 being built a year, she said.

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