Doctors are now prescribing nature to improve patients’ health

Man in old black jacket and blue and white woolen hat walking on snow-filled country road. Temporary Filomena Photo by Iker Zabaleta/Shutterstock

My mother was a great believer in “fresh air”. Whether the problem was boredom, a brother who pushed my buttons, or a runny nose, “fresh air” was the panacea.

And now doctors are backing her up.

Like my mother, a new initiative dubbed PaRx aims to get us outside and connecting with nature, not simply because it feels good but because it does good, making us physically, emotionally, and psychologically healthier. An initiative of the BC Parks Foundation, it is driven by health-care professionals aiming to improve their patients’ health.

“A lot of people are intuitively aware that it feels good to be in nature,” says Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver-based family physician, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and PaRx Director. But what people are less aware of, she says, “is there is a significant body of evidence” to back up the impact nature has on our health. She points to a 2018 meta-analysis that indicated that increased exposure to nature was linked to improved outcomes in a wide variety of health conditions, from blood pressure to obesity to diabetes to chronic lung diseases to ADHD in children.

Consequently, says Dr. Lem, it makes sense to “prescribe” nature as part of a broad approach to improving patients’ health.

Not only does Dr. Lem hope that nature prescriptions will get people outdoors, thanks to health care providers across the country who have been equipped with prescription pads encouraging at least two hours a week of time outdoors, she’s hopeful it will create a culture shift in which we value parks and green spaces as essential for our health and, therefore, fund them better and protect them more.

She makes clear that park prescriptions are not meant to replace or conflict with medication and Western medicine. Rather, they are part of a wider medical response to health concerns.

Ontario libraries recently announced that they, too, are getting on board the nature train, allowing patrons at 200 branches to borrow seasonal day passes to provincial parks.

We cottagers, of course, already know well the benefits of being in the natural world. But now, says Dr. Lem, when you go to the lake, “you know that feeling you get is actually backed up by science.”

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