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Great Outdoors

Writing Prescriptions to Visit National Parks?

Dustin Bowdige

Canada’s new Park Prescriptions (PaRx) program gives doctors the ability to prescribe nature in the form of a year-long free pass to the country’s national parks. The BC Parks Foundation started the program as a way to begin integrating nature into healthcare. It’s a step into an alternative medical practice designed to improve people’s physical and mental health, increase knowledge and love of the parks, and reduce the country’s healthcare costs.

“This exciting collaboration with PaRx is a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges,” said Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister for Parks Canada, “and [it] couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives.”

Photo Courtesy National Cancer Institute

The program started in 2019 when doctors in four Canadian provinces were given 100 year-long national park passes to distribute to patients at their discretion, encouraging the doctors to literally prescribe how often and how long their patients should spend in the great outdoors. Residents of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Ontario are all eligible to receive the pass. This pass saves residents $72.25 Canadian for an unlimited-visit annual pass to the parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas. The program will eventually expand across all of Canada.

“Given the growing body of evidence that indicates nature time can improve all kinds of different physical and mental health conditions, we’re hoping that our PaRx program not only improves patient health, but reduces costs to the healthcare system, and helps to grow the number of people who are more engaged environmental advocates,” said Prama Rahman, Coordinator for the BC Parks Foundation’s Healthy By Nature Program.

Photo Courtesy Mike Markov

The idea behind the program is rooted in the research that links time spent in nature with significant improvement in mental and physical health. Studies show stronger immune defenses, better eyesight, and even enhanced creativity all result from time outdoors.

For example, Children with ADHD who walk in the woods do better on analytical tests. In fact, people who spend at least two hours in nature each week show a big drop in the stress hormone cortisol and significantly improved heart rate variability. And those studies aren’t just about hiking or other physical activity – even just sitting in nature improves a person’s health.

Doctors are embracing the concept, with more than 1,000 prescribers enrolled.

“I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2022 than being able to give the gift of nature to my patients,” said PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem, who is also a family physician. “There’s a strong body of evidence on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function and life expectancy to reduced risk of heart disease, depression, and anxiety, and I’m excited to see those benefits increase through this new collaboration.”

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