For cancer survivors, three seasons of home vegetable gardening may increase physical activity, fruit and vegetable intake and enhance feelings of self-worth, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Possibly because of these healthy behaviors, gardeners in the small study also tended to gain less weight around their waists compared to their counterparts on a waiting list for the gardening intervention.
“For cancer survivors, especially those who are older, we look for lifestyle changes that can help them get healthier but are also holistic and have meaning”, said the researchers. “We can send people to the gym, but that isn’t meaningful, and we can counsel them to eat better, but we want it to be more rewarding, and we want it to be long-term”.
The research team did a pilot study with 42 cancer survivors, randomly assigning half to participate in a year-long gardening program with cooperative extension master gardeners and the other half to be put on a waiting list for the gardening program. All the participants were age 60 or older and had been diagnosed with early and mid-stage cancers that have high survival rates - such as localized bladder, breast, prostate or thyroid cancers.
For the participants in the gardening group, the master gardeners brought raised growing beds as well as plants, seeds and other gardening supplies to each person’s home and helped them establish three seasonal vegetable gardens over the course of the experiment.
Before and after the year-long study period, researchers assessed the participants’ diets, performed strength and balance tests, as well as blood tests for markers of stress and overall health. They also administered a series of questions to gauge stress levels, quality of life and mental state.
Gardeners gained less belly fat, lower stress markers
At the end of the experiment, researchers found that the gardeners were eating, on average, one more fruit or vegetable serving per day than the waitlist participants. Gardeners had also gained, on average, just 2.3 centimeters (0.91 inch) around their waists, versus nearly 8 cm (3.15 inches) in the waitlist group. Blood results showed some lower markers of stress in the gardening group, and while gardeners reported an increased feeling of “worth,” the waitlist participants had a decline in this category.
Among participants in the gardening group, 91 percent stuck with the program through the one-year follow-up, 70 percent said their experience was “excellent” and 85 percent said they “would do it again.”
Other programs exploring the benefits of gardening for cancer survivors include the Garden of Hope, a three-acre farm hosted by The Ohio State University College of Medicine for cancer survivors and caregivers to harvest vegetables grown seasonally by staff and student interns. Last year, 400 cancer survivors visited the farm, which is on the university’s Columbus campus, and participated in studies.
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