UW study researches link between health and gardening

Sep 13, 2013

Christine Porter
Credit University of Wyoming

With help from a five million dollar USDA grant, the University of Wyoming and two local groups are conducting a study of the health benefits of gardening.   They found fourteen volunteers with significant medical issues to start growing food in their own backyards.  The goal is to see if gardening improves their health.  Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards reports.

[Fade up Ambi of background garden sounds]

MELODIE EDWARDS: Gayle Woodsum runs a group called Feeding Laramie Valley which collects fresh fruits and vegetable donations, and distributes the produce to soup kitchens and other organizations.  Woodsum can often be found working on her vegetable plot in the LaBonte community garden, weeding or picking beets, broccoli and yellow squash.

[Fade up ambi of Woodsum hoeing]

This morning, she’s doing some hoeing.  But she doesn’t just tend her own garden.  She’s working to build gardens for people with serious health problems.  It’s part of a research project.

[Fade out ambi of Woodsum hoeing]

GAYLE WOODSUM: “We get people gardens, we put them in, we work with the people who have them and then measure whether there’s a health effect on them.  So all the people involved have some sort of health challenge.”

EDWARDS: Challenges that range from diabetes to arthritis.  The participants for the study came from all socio-economic and age groups.  At the start, they recorded a lot of data about their medical problems.  At the end of the gardening season, they’ll go through the same retinue of tests again to see if they’re healthier. 

[Fade up ambi of Jason watering]

EDWARDS: In the sunny side yard of his duplex apartment, Jason Nichols waters his zucchini plants where, these days, he and his mother, Tera Nichols, spend most of their mornings. 

[Fade out ambi of Jason watering] 

They volunteered to do the garden study after hearing about it through Jason's therapist.  Both of them have lots of health challenges.

TERA NICHOLS: “Well, I myself have a lot of, you know, chronic conditions, nothing acute.  Osteoarthritis which has gotten really bad up here.  Heart condition, diabetes and asthma.  Not the least to say is anxiety disorder and depression.”

EDWARDS: Since they started participating in the study, they’ve been eating lots of fresh vegetables.  And she's getting more exercise because she’s climbing the stairs three and four times a day to be outside tending her garden—or just admiring it.

NICHOLS: “But I managed to keep off four pounds.  But my blood sugar has stabilized for the first time in a long, long time.  So that’s what it’s done for me.”

EDWARDS: Tera says she is curious to find out objectively if she really is healthier.  The project is the brain child of Dr. Christine Porter, an assistant professor of Public Health at UW.  Porter says it’s important to give people control over their health and gardening is an excellent way to do that.  She says there are lots of observational studies of gardening’s effect on health, but this is the only study collecting scientific data that she knows of.

CHRISTINE PORTER: “So our goal here is ultimately to do a randomized control trial so you can be sure that the benefits that are being attributed to gardens are true.  And can prove those benefits, which include not only access to food, increased fruits and vegetable consumption, but increased activity, lowered stress, increased social networks.  Even with home gardens, interestingly.”

EDWARDS: The study will track a wide array of health measures including blood pressure, blood glucose and even cortisol in the saliva as an indication of stress levels.  They are doing the study in two places, in Laramie and on the Wind River Indian Reservation.  On the reservation, diabetes is so prevalent that the life expectancy is only fifty-nine.  Jim Sutter with Blue Mountain Associates, the Wind River Reservation group partnering on the study, says he’s already seeing results, at least anecdotally. 

JIM SUTTER: “Because I’ve seen the gardeners that have been already utilizing the produce from their gardens.  And, you know, they’re happier and just look healthier than when we started this.”

EDWARDS: Sutter says many participants have been building more garden beds on their own and asking if they can have larger gardens next year.  In fact, Sutter says, they've gone one step further and are preserving and canning, as well. 

The results of the study will be analyzed and released after the growing season is wrapped up in October.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Melodie Edwards.