Community gardens not only provide good nutrition, but also the perfect exercise


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When working in community gardens, participants reap what they sow and more.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah showed that the health benefits of a community garden go far beyond the fresh fruits and vegetables added to your diet.

After studying the body mass index data of 198 community gardeners and their same-sex siblings, spouses and neighbors, researchers found they had lower BMIs than their non-gardening counterparts. They were also less likely to be obese or overweight.

When a gardener's BMI, a measure of body fat, was compared to their non-gardening spouse's BMI, the researchers found no discernible difference. This led them to conclude that the spouses were benefiting from the harvested food and possibly helped out in the garden. Results were reported April 18 in the American Journal of Public Health.

These results came as no surprise to Judith Dodd, a registered dietitian at UPMC, who often advises her patients to take up gardening as the perfect exercise.

"Walking is wonderful, but think about what you have to do when you're gardening. You're going to be bending, you're going to be pulling the arms back and raking, you're going to use the whole body, and you don't even think you are," she said.

Gardening provides what she calls ongoing exercise. The body is constantly in motion. A garden also needs constant care because without it, plants will fail to thrive.

This season, plants are thriving in a number of community gardens across the city. Marisa Manheim, the City Growers coordinator, has located and mapped more than 60 community gardens in the region -- and those are only the ones she knows about.

City Growers is a program of Grow Pittsburgh that helps set up and maintain four to five community gardens each year.

When people come to City Growers to begin a community garden, it is for many different reasons. Some want more growing space, others want to do it for the community and there are those who want guidance from the experienced staff. Regardless of their reasons, Ms. Manheim sees a lot of extra benefits flowing from their decision.

She sees the physical activity they engage in as they dig, weed and build garden beds. She notices the surplus of organic foods they grow that will make their way to family members and neighbors. She also witnesses the connections participants make with each other.

Older adults dig it

Of the gardens Ms. Manheim has worked with, Riverview Community Garden in Brighton Heights stands out as a prime example of the benefits of community gardens.

The garden is located near Riverview Manor, a senior high-rise. Resident Prudence "Prudy" Shonka pays frequent visits to her plot at the garden.

Before Grow Pittsburgh helped to bring it back to life last year and some of the residents were given plots of land to cultivate, Ms. Shonka says many of the residents at the high-rise mostly stayed inside.

"Some of the people here, they don't do much. They don't walk around too much, but I think having the garden gave them something to do," she said.

In her plot, the 74-year-old grows jalapeno peppers and green peppers. She also has 14 tomato plants. "They produce like crazy," she said.

"I'm one of these people that likes to care for something or someone and the tomatoes, my little vegetable plot out there, I just loved watching it grow."

She reports reduced stress levels and sleeping better because of the time spent outside and the physical labor she puts into her corner of the garden. She also said she made many new friends.

"There's something about gardening that I think brings out the best in everybody," she said. "Everybody is willing to help you in your garden, weeding if you need it or watering, and some people I didn't even know in the building [but] got to know because of the garden."

Residents without plots also get fresh produce when their neighbors bring in extras from their plots to share. "A lot of them don't drive, and they don't get the opportunity to go to the grocery store very often, so they're dependent on the food pantry that comes on a weekly basis for a lot of their food, and there's just not a lot of produce in there," Ms. Manheim explained.

Teaching the young

At the other end of the spectrum, some organizations are beginning to use gardening as a tool to teach children about where their food comes from and to promote nutrition and fight obesity.

In Somerville, Mass., community gardens were used as part of Shape Up Somerville, a community-wide intervention program to battle child obesity. Along with several dietary changes and measures to encourage exercise, the city implemented a school garden and community gardening program.

Tufts University researchers found that 20 months after Shape Up Somerville was launched, the BMI z-score of the children in the intervention program was lower compared to children in two similar control cities that had not been part of the intervention program. Z-scores were created by researchers and are considered more useful than percentiles in gauging levels of severe obesity. The children weighed less and had decreased chances of being overweight or obese.

School garden

In Moon, the American Heart Association teamed up with students from J.A. Allard Elementary School to plant a garden that the students will maintain throughout the year. They get the physical benefits of weeding, watering and digging. When the vegetables ripen, students are allowed to harvest them for meals.

"Not only do they learn about where fruits and vegetables come from, but they're more inclined to eat their vegetables. They get excited going shopping or going to the produce stand," said Karen Colbert, AHA's regional director of communications.

In neighborhoods where processed foods are widely available and affordable and fresh produce is less available, community gardens provide a cheap way to add healthful organic fruits and vegetables to mealtime in the home. Adding to that the fitness and social benefits, getting involved in community gardening is simple and the payoff large.

For help finding a community garden in your neighborhood, visit the community garden map at Growpittsburgh.org.

health

Kitoko Chargois: health@post-gazette.com.


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