Community gardens bring neighbors together to enjoy the outdoors and each others’ company while growing nutritious food together. Urban gardens may also be a good way to enhance weight-loss efforts.

People who participate in community gardens seem to have lower BMIs and a smaller chance of being overweight or obese than people who live nearby but don’t garden.

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For the study, researchers collected body mass index numbers for nearly 200 community gardeners in Salt Lake City. They then compared those numbers to the BMIs of unrelated neighbors as well as siblings and spouses of the gardeners, allowing them to see what effects gardening might have in people who eat a similar diet, live in areas with the same kinds of resources, participate in other activities together or share related genes.

Among women, community gardeners weighed in at nearly two BMI points lower than their neighbors, which is the equivalent of an 11-pound weight difference for a woman who was 5 feet 5 inches tall, the team reports today in the American Journal of Public Health. The difference was even greater for men, amounting to a 16-pound difference for a 5-foot, 10-inch man.

Women gardeners were also 46 percent less likely to be overweight or obese than non-gardening women, and gardening men were 62 percent less likely to be obese than non-gardening men. Spouses of gardeners seemed to benefit, too.

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The researchers can’t yet say whether the benefits of gardening come from eating better or exercising more, or even if gardening was necessarily the cause of lower weight in their study. But the findings suggest that gardening might be a positive addition to a health-conscious lifestyle.

“As the percentage of Americans living in urban areas continues to grow, this initial study validates the idea that community gardens are a valuable neighborhood asset that can promote healthier living,” said lead researcher Cathleen Zick, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, in a press release. “That could be of interest to urban planners, public health officials and others focused on designing new neighborhoods and revitalizing old ones.”

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