Vegetable Gardening May Help Boost Cancer Survivors’ Health

Cancer survivors face an increased risk of many conditions after treatment. Research has shown they have a 42% higher chance of developing cardiovascular disease, as well as a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. This is in addition to an accelerated functional decline. Vegetables are part of a healthy lifestyle that may be able to help address these risks, as is the physical activity acquired through gardening. A new study investigated whether these two can be combined to help improve the health of survivors.

Research recently published in JAMA Network Open compared health outcomes between cancer survivors in Alabama who were enrolled in a vegetable garden intervention and those who were waitlisted for the same intervention. The survivors were all at least 50 years old, with an average age of 69, and went into the study eating fewer than five servings of fruits and veggies a day, exercising for fewer than 150 minutes a week, and had lower levels of physical function. After a year, their health metrics were reexamined. Those in the gardening group fared better.

Person digs into their vegetable garden
PHOTO: PIXABAY / EKATERINA ERSHOVA

Dr. Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, lead researcher and Chair of Nutrition Sciences in the School of Health Professions at University of Alabama at Birmingham, says, “Findings from the study showed that the survivors increased their intake of vegetables by roughly one-third of a serving per day. They also had significant increases in mobility and function, perceived health and improvements in their gut microflora, when compared to the delayed intervention group.”

The gardening group – which consisted of 194 of the 381 participants – had been given gardening supplies to get started. Those included one raised bed or four grow boxes with seeds, gardening tools, and recipes. They also had help from master gardeners to ensure they were able to properly develop their green thumb. Those in the waitlist group had the same chance a year later.

In this study, however, the first gardening group had an average increase of 0.3 servings of fruits and veggies per day and had better performances in a 2-minute step test and 30-second chair stand, compared to the waitlisted group.

Closeup of freshly pulled radishes from garden
PHOTO: PIXABAY / COULEUR

The study was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and researchers say further study during a time not impacted by a pandemic could help shine further light on the benefits of gardening, though it may be a good place to start for cancer survivors looking to boost their health.

Dr. Demark-Wahnefried says, “Interventions that can support them in making healthier food choices, such as eating more vegetables, and providing more opportunities to increase physical activity are crucial. I am hopeful that other studies in different environments and different populations of cancer survivors assess the benefits of gardening interventions. In the meantime, cancer survivors should explore ways to cultivate their health — and a vegetable garden is a good place to start.”

Person holds fruits and vegetables from garden
PHOTO: PIXABAY / JF-GABNOR

Breast cancer survivor Susan Rossman was among the participants. She offers a personal perspective on the experience, saying, “I liked the idea of growing something because it represented the whole circle of life. Plus, it helped me take better care of myself and have some fresh vegetables. It prompted me to spend a little more time thinking about what I was putting in my mouth and what I was buying and cooking for myself and my husband.”

You can learn more about her experience, and the study, in the video below.

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