Why some doctors are now prescribing outdoor time in nature

Why some doctors are now prescribing outdoor time in nature

We all understand that spending time outdoors in nature has a positive effect on our health, but what if doctors could write an official prescription for it?

Thanks to a new Canadian program, they can.

PaRx (short for “Park Prescriptions”) is a wellness initiative, in partnership with the B.C. Parks Foundation. The program encourages licensed healthcare professionals to formally prescribe time in nature to enhance their patients’ physical and mental health.

The director of PaRx, Vancouver-based family physician Dr. Melissa Lem, says the program has been well-received in B.C., and the intention is to expand across Canada in 2021.

Nature Rx: What’s the right dose?

The standard PaRx prescription is two hours per week outdoors in nature, with a minimum of 20 minutes for each session, Dr. Lem says. This recommendation may be provided on its own or in conjunction with other elements of an overall treatment plan.

The two hours may be spent in any natural setting, including a backyard, urban garden, park, hiking trail, forest, or waterway.

“The best green space is one that you’ll spend time in, so nearby nature becomes important,” she says. “It’s how meaningful the experience is to the individual, not the location, that counts.”

The many benefits of being active outside

Being active in nature is scientifically proven to have a positive effect on the body, including the heart, lungs, and immune system. The psychological benefits (such as stress management and higher self-esteem) are also well documented.

“For many years, I have routinely included nature time as a lifestyle recommendation to patients with mental health concerns,” explains Dr. Lem. “They report that adding nature time to my advice regarding eating habits, sleep, and exercise does improve their mood.”

Just as newcomers to exercise stand to reap dramatic benefits when starting a program, Dr. Lem notes that those who previously haven’t spent time in nature are likely to see noticeable health gains from adopting this new routine. People who are already active will also enjoy a natural bonus.

“We know that physical activity is great for your health,” says Dr. Lem, “but evidence indicates that being active in nature supercharges the effects.”

What are the implications for kids?

“Nature exposure is associated with a wealth of positive outcomes for children, including improved eyesight, brain power, and immunity levels,” says Dr. Lem.

This year in particular, kids need to get outside for a much-needed change of scenery. Screen use among children is at an all-time high, due to stay-at-home restrictions and the need for online learning. 

Having kids play outdoors in a spacious natural area (with appropriate social distancing) can help protect them from virus exposure. “During this pandemic,” Dr. Lem says, “outside is one of the safest places to be.”

One more upside: kids who spend time in nature will gain a greater appreciation for the environment and tend to practice more eco-friendly behaviours.

Advice for parents

Dr. Lem, who is a parent herself, shares these tips to get outdoors with your family:

  • Buddy up. When public health guidelines allow, invite friends and family to make it a shared and social experience.
  • Try not to rush, but instead move at your child’s pace and enjoy the surroundings. Incorporate your child’s interests, whether that involves collecting items in a bucket, constructing a fort, mapping a specific route, or taking nature photos.

During these unprecedented times, physical and mental health have become top priorities for Canadians. As Dr. Lem and her colleagues are discovering, heading outside and enjoying time in nature is just what the doctor ordered.

Further reading:

Why nature play is so good for kids, especially now

Studies show spending time in nature can improve children’s attention spans

10 nature activities you can do with kids (while social distancing!)

7 kid-friendly games to play on trail walks and nature hikes

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