It’s indisputable. The amount of time the average human spends outdoors is greatly reduced compared to previous generations. Did you know that nearly half of the U.S. population doesn’t participate in any outdoor recreation at all? And that 90 percent of our time is spent indoors?
Why? It’s largely because, at the end of the day, electronics dominate our days (and evenings). And during the pandemic, many (particularly in dense cities) spent even more time indoors, to the detriment of their mental and physical health — this included higher depression and anxiety .
But no matter how many studies show us that time in nature can lead to a range of health benefits, including better physical health and less stress, we are stubborn creatures and find bad habits hard to break.
Maybe a “doctor’s order” will snap us out of it? That’s the hope of a group of Canadian doctors who are now issuing a prescription for a national parks pass. You heard that right.
A new partnership between Park Prescriptions (Canada’s first national nature prescription program) and Parks Canada, prescriptions are now given to Canadians to spend more time in a national park, national historic site, or national marine conservation area.
National Park Prescriptions
Canada’s Park Prescriptions (PaRx) campaign began in 2019 and was inspired by Park Rx America (PRA) in the U.S., which began with the simple belief that nature-rich areas should be accessible to all and incorporated into our daily routines.
Spending time in and around nature is the single most important first-step to improving both human and planetary health. PRA is committed to educating healthcare professionals and the public, and to providing the tools to meet each individual’s unique needs.
Rather than resorting to only pharmaceutical prescriptions, the goal of the Canadian program was to arm health-care professionals with new tools to encourage their patients to get out in nature much more often, to the benefit of their mental and physical health. The standard recommendation is around two hours of time in nature per week, with at least 20 minute bouts. It can be something rigorous such as a bike ride or hike, but also even gardening or sitting on a park bench.
Since the park pass prescription was added, the PaRx network more than doubled to over 2,500 possible prescribers.
Health Benefits of Being Outdoors
We’ve written articles about both forest bathing (aka shinrin-yoku) and ecotherapy (aka nature therapy), as both promise health benefits. A Japanese concept, forest bathing involves you immersing yourself in naturally beautiful and health-boosting forest surroundings by using your various senses of sight, hearing, smell, etc.
Ecotherapy, also called ecopsychology, is a mental health approach that utilizes the positive effects of nature to lift one’s sense of well-being. It involves spending time outdoors in various ways, such as gardening, exercising outside, or simply laying on the beach or chilling in a park.
Too often we don’t get outside time into our schedule because we’re “too busy” and maybe the weather isn’t conducive, but if only we knew how profound the health benefits were. Here are just a few promoted by Park Rx America that hopefully will convince you to make going outside, including visiting a national park, much more of a priority as well as more frequent.
Physical health benefits include:
- Increasing outdoor play in preschoolers decreases BMI.
- Exercising outside confers greater physical and mental health benefits than exercising indoors.
- Several studies show that forest bathing sessions decrease blood pressure.
- Individuals living in areas with more greenspace have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Time outdoors is directly related to improved sleep.
- Forest bathing significantly improved immune function and decreased stress.
Mental health benefits include:
- People with depression who regularly walk in nature exhibit an improved mood.
- Time in nature significantly decreases anxiety and stress in children.
- Nature can majorly reduce cortisol levels, a physiologic measure of stress — as shown by those who participated in forest bathing sessions.
- Time in nature appears to significantly reduce ADHD symptoms.
- Not only does hiking help improve aerobic fitness and endurance, but it’s also a natural stress reliever.
- Benefits of hiking can include improved resilience against anxiety and depression, strength, bone density, balance, heart health, and weight management.
- Sleeping outside with the natural light helped study participants wake up two hours earlier and synced their sleep cycles with their natural internal clocks.
- Camping also benefits your health and happiness in other ways by reducing symptoms of depression, minimizing negative thinking and increasing levels of vitamin D in the body.
On top of how this park prescription movement can assist individual health, it also can boost climate health. People who spend more time in nature are much more prone to appreciate it as well as protect it.
The Wellness Coordinator for the Salt Lake County Health Department, Sadie May, reported that the PRA was a great success for the employees after they decided to participate in this national park prescription program.
[With the pandemic], employees were in desperate need of a wellness activity to help them boost their mental health, physical wellness and spiritual well-being. PRA was an extremely delightful program for our participants with 84 percent reporting they are very likely or likely to complete their Park Rx after the program’s completion.
So it’s time for you to ask your own healthcare provider for a nature prescription. Even better, write your own nature prescription!