Why your next doctor appointment might yield a prescription to play outside

Why your next doctor appointment might yield a prescription to play outside

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Illustration by Doug De Visser
Illustration by Doug De Visser

By Oliver Lazenby

There’s a pill for that.

Maybe “that” refers to heart disease, ADHD, depression, obesity or a galaxy of other ailments. But there’s also something else for that: exercising outside and spending time in a natural environment.

Exposure to nature is associated with lower blood pressure, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and better blood sugar control for diabetics. Neuroscience studies have shown improved cognitive development in children who spend more time in nature, as well as less anxiety and negative thinking for adults.

So why don’t doctors prescribe time outside? It turns out some do.

Bellingham nonprofit Recreation Northwest is launching a program called Parkscriptions that aims to make it easier for doctors to prescribe nature. Family Care Network, a group of local primary care doctors, has signed on to help pilot the program and the City of Bellingham and the Whatcom County Health Department are also working on the program.

The heart of the program will be a database with information about parks and green spaces throughout Whatcom County. A doctor could punch in a patient’s address and find the closest parks, as well as information about the amenities, trails, hours and other details.

The program will also have a public education component, but doctors are key to making it work, said Michelle Anderson, who is communications and project manager for Family Care Network.

“A patient is more willing to take that advice when it’s prescribed by a doctor,” she said. “The idea is if you give a specific recommendation, the patient can take action.”

Perhaps a doctor would prescribe going to a specific park near a patient’s house and walking a flat loop four times a week. That’s easier to follow then a more general recommendation such as getting 20 minutes of exercise four times a week, Anderson said.

“It’s not easy to figure out what qualifies and what counts as exercise,” she said. “On top of that, people don’t know where to go to do it.”

The database will be geared toward doctors but will be usable by anyone, said April Claxton, Recreation Northwest’s program director.

“A public database and mobile platform is the basis for the program and for getting people outside. That database will allows health practitioners to have very custom conversations with patients,” Claxton said. “Hopefully over time those patients will access it directly.”

Claxton heard from health care providers that, if the program is to work, it needs to make getting outside as easy as taking a pill.

Finding information about particular parks can require looking at multiple government websites, and knowing which agency manages the park. The database would remove that barrier.

“There are people in our community who are challenged when it comes to getting outside,” she said. “For a lot of people there’s just not a basic comfort level with being in a park or being outside.” Recreation Northwest has identified contractors to build and manage the database and website, doctors willing to pilot the program and populations most in need of outdoor play. Now, they need money to build it. Claxton said Recreation Northwest plans to seek funds through grants and individual donations.

“Our hope is to start working with a web development company next spring and have a light but functional version to pilot soon after,” she said.

Similar programs have popped up across the U.S. and Canada. Claxton said she was most inspired by one in Washington D.C. called Parks RX. That program started in 2013 and one participating health care group made 720 prescriptions in the first couple of years.

The program is a big new step in Recreation Northwest’s evolution. The organization started by hosting an adventure race, and then expanded to parks advocacy, stewardship and education. Claxton sees health care connected to what it has been doing all along.

“I really think if we can get more people outside, connecting with these places – even if it’s one park in their neighborhood they connect with – over time we will have more people who understand the benefit of parks and become stewards,” she said.   x