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Harvesting Health from the Garden

The most common piece of exercise equipment in American households might just be the humble garden trowel. Active gardening offers health benefits that match those of the most sophisticated health club, according to Joel Kimmons, a nutrition expert for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

Instances of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and many other illnesses could be greatly reduced if more people participated in gardening on a regular basis.

Dr. Kimmons made his case at the Gardens for All Conference in Des Moines, Iowa, sponsored by Drake University Agricultural Law Center in cooperation with the National Gardening Association. The conference, organized by Drake law professor Neil Hamilton, was designed to explore ways to bring the benefits of gardening to the attention of policy-makers at every level of government.

According to the CDC, garden tasks like raking leaves and weeding offer the exercise equivalent of low-intensity aerobic dance or biking at 5-9 miles per hour. More strenuous jobs, such as digging or moving large loads of dirt, are the equivalent of race walking or working out on a stair-climbing machine.

As a nutritional epidemiologist, Kimmons is particularly alert to the potential for home-grown fruits and vegetables to improve the average person's diet. "The U.S. has the highest level of malnutrition in the world," Kimmons noted, citing research that shows that fewer than 10 percent of Americans get the CDC-recommended 7-13 daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

The trend underlying that statistic may be a key reason for the rapid rise in obesity - and its associated health consequences, notably diabetes - over the past 20 years. And the trend is accelerating. For example, in 2004, there were nine states in which 25 percent or more of their residents were dangerously obese; in 2000, no states fell into that category.

Kimmons said garden-grown foods are more healthy than those bought in the supermarket. Too many vegetables sold in supermarkets have been "dumbed down," that is, bred for sweetness, pest resistance or industrial production methods at the expense of flavor, he said. Home gardeners, on the other hand, can produce fruits and vegetables at the peak of flavor and nutritional value.

Gardening's health benefits extend beyond preventing illness. They also apply to individuals who are already experiencing health problems. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, gardening activities can be used to support the physical, social, psychological needs of people who are physically and mentally challenged, regardless of age.

Rick Brooks, director of the Health Promotion Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told conference attendees of his experiences coordinating construction therapy gardens for people with a variety of disabilities.

For his work on projects like that one, Brooks was recently named the grand prize winner of the Garden Crusader Awards program run by Gardener's Supply Company. The program recognizes individuals who have improved their communities through gardening activities.

Brooks noted that the benefits of his work are not always immediately evident. He related his experience building a garden with two residents of the Waunakee Adult Family Home in Madison, Wis. Due to a communication disorder, the two women rarely spoke, so Brooks was unsure of their reaction to the garden.

"We kinda wondered if we made a difference," Brooks said at the conference. The answer came two months later. "I got a package in the mail," Brooks recalled. "It was two jars of tomato jam made from their garden. And there's a picture of both of them smiling with their jam."

Sept. 8, 2006

CONTACT: Professor Neil Hamilton, 515-271-2065, Lisa Lacher, 515-271-3119,     


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