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"It has been shown previously that community gardens can provide a variety of social and nutritional benefits to neighborhoods," study author Cathleen Zick, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, said in a university news release. "But until now, we did not have data to show a measurable health benefit for those who use the gardens."
She and her colleagues looked at the body-mass index (BMI) of 198 community gardeners in Salt Lake City and compared them to non-gardening neighbors. BMI is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight.
The BMI of female community gardeners was an average 1.84 points lower than their neighbors, a difference of 11 pounds for a 5-foot-5 woman. The BMI of male community gardeners was 2.36 points lower than their neighbors, a difference of 16 pounds for a man at 5 feet 10 inches.
Compared to nongardeners, the likelihood of being overweight or obese was 62 percent lower for male gardeners and 46 percent lower for female gardeners, according to the study appearing online April 18 in the American Journal of Public Health.
The researchers also found that gardeners had lower BMIs than their same-sex siblings. The average BMI was 1.88 lower for female community gardeners compared to their sisters and 1.33 lower for male community gardeners compared to their brothers.
There was no difference in BMI or the risk of being overweight between married gardeners and their spouses. That is not surprising because spouses would likely help out with gardening and benefit from eating the healthy foods produced in the garden, the study authors noted.
These findings support "the idea that community gardens are a valuable neighborhood asset that can promote healthier living. That could be of interest to urban planners, public health officials and others focused on designing new neighborhoods and revitalizing old ones," Zick said.
But while "these data are intriguing," she noted, "they were drawn from participants in a single community gardening organization in Salt Lake City and may not apply broadly until more research is done."
And although the study found an association between gardening and lower BMI, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
-- Robert Preidt
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