- Do you smoke?
- Are you currently taking any medications?
- How much time do you spend in nature?
With the prevalence of chronic disease on the rise, physicians and healthcare organizations are looking to the great outdoors as a means of combatting this growing epidemic.
Health Benefits of Nature
In his 1984 book Biophilia, biologist Edward Wilson laid out what has become known as the Biophilia Hypothesis — that we as humans have an innate tendency to connect with nature and other life forms.
By Wilson’s logic, nature is essential to our well-being — a theory that has become increasingly well-founded in research. In a systematic review published in The Lancet, surrounding greenness had an inverse association with all-cause mortality, suggesting that an increase in green spaces could be a viable public health intervention.
A substantial body of research has linked nature experience — defined in a Science Advances paper on the subject as individuals’ perceptions and/or interactions with stimuli from the natural world through a variety of sensory modalities — to improved psychological well-being and mental health. A University of East Anglia study spanning 20 countries, including the U.S., found that exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and other serious health conditions.
Physicians have been telling their patients to get more exercise since, quite possibly, the dawn of medicine. But with the shift from volume- to value-based care and the growing recognition that treating the whole person is the key to improving health outcomes, they’re beginning to take a more pragmatic approach — writing actual nature prescriptions.
The Park Rx Movement
The National ParkRx Initiative, led by the Institute at the Golden Gate, started as a collaboration of U.S. park agencies, healthcare providers and community organizations around the concept of prescribing nature for physical and mental health. Today, Park Prescription programs are popping up across the country, with the 2018 ParkRx Census counting 71 programs in 32 states.
Some of the nation’s largest insurers are getting in on the action, too. In 2016, Humana partnered with MetCare to pilot the ParkRx program, and in 2017, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation partnered with the Kids in Parks TRACK Trails program, a network of family-friendly trails in North Carolina that has since expanded nationwide. As part of the program, providers are even given a special prescription pad to issue hiking prescriptions.
Nature as a Social Determinant of Health
While research correlating time spent in nature with better health may not seem particularly groundbreaking, the fact that doctors are taking to their prescription pads to get patients up and out speaks to one of the great dilemmas of modern and urban life.
From young children to working adults, spending quality time in nature can be more than just difficult. For the approximately 80 percent of Americans living in urban areas — particularly, those at a socioeconomic disadvantage — it can be largely unfeasible. And with physical environment serving as a key determinant of health, a lack of access to greenspace could actually be considered a health disparity.
Access & Accountability
In order to reap the health benefits of nature, researchers say it takes at least 120 minutes per week outdoors — time that can be hard to come by for many of today’s working families. The concept of actually prescribing nature, while perhaps amusing at first, brings a layer of accountability into the equation that can be quite effective (i.e., spending two hours a week outdoors is as important as taking your blood pressure medication). And with many of these programs providing transportation and even organizing group outings, families who may not be able to access this vital time outdoors are given the opportunity to do so, making these programs low-cost interventions with high potential impact.
To learn more about Park Prescriptions, or to locate a program near you, visit www.parkrx.org.