Ontario Doctors Can Now Prescribe Time in Nature to Patients

The Park Prescriptions program recommends spending 20 minutes a day outside.

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Getty Images/Colin Hawkins

Two hours a week, 20 minutes per day. That's the amount of outdoor time that doctors and other healthcare providers in Ontario, Canada, can now prescribe to patients. It's part of a new initiative called Park Prescriptions, or PaRx, that recognizes the tremendous health benefits that come from time spent in nature. 

In an interview with CBC Radio, family physician Melissa Lem said that nature should be considered the fourth pillar of health, in addition to diet, exercise, and sleep, and that governments should designate green spaces as an essential part of the healthcare system.

The PaRx website describes just some of the findings from hundreds of studies about nature's effect on human health. Spending time in a forest drops stress hormone levels within 15 minutes, reduces inflammation in adults with COPD and risk of lung infections. Increased time in nature makes a person less likely to develop heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Nature therapy improves the psychological wellbeing of cancer patients and activates tumor-killing cells

For children, time in nature boosts resilience and lessens anxiety and . A 20-minute walk in the park is comparable to medication when it comes to improving concentration in kids with ADHD. Kids with more green space in their neighborhoods have lower rates of asthma and higher test scores and graduation rates.

Offering a written prescription makes it more likely that people will follow through. As Dr. Lem said, "When I want one of my patients to remember something, I always write it down on a piece of paper and hand it to them – or, these days, send them an email so they'll remember. It's really easy to forget verbal advice." The PaRx program will eventually allow patients to log their daily outdoor time for doctors to review via an app, offering accountability that often helps to motivate.

Ontario family physician Tara Somerville had a similar view when speaking to Treehugger: "We know that when a physician actually writes a prescription for physical activity, a patient is much more likely to actually do more activity. I think by simply discussing getting outside with our patients, or better yet, writing that prescription as a reminder, we will get more uptake – more people connecting with the outside world, disconnecting from their phones and inside-selves."

Dr. Lem explained that nature prescriptions tend to be more accessible and less daunting to patients than exercise prescriptions, which are fairly mainstream within the medical community. Doctors are urged to pick outdoor activities that fit easily into their patient's life, both physically and geographically. From the website:

  • Make it place-based. Map their home address or workplace and point them to walkable, bikable or transit-accessible green spaces nearby. 
  • Recommend green tweaks to their regular routine: plan a visit with family in a park, or a cardio workout on a trail.
  • Recognize and reduce barriers. Remember that almost anyone can increase the time they spend in nature, no matter what their physical abilities are or where they live. 
  • Schedule it. Just like a doctor's appointment or coffee date, patients are more likely to stick to a commitment when they write it down.

"Ontario's rollout is the next phase of the BC Parks Foundation's work on PaRx's cross-Canada rollout that started in late 2020," Dr. Lem told Treehugger. It's likely to spread further afield as both health care providers and patients alike realize what a hidden (and affordable) gem the outdoor world can be when it comes to boosting health. The interesting thing about time spent in nature is that, the more you do it, the more you want it, so the benefits continue to accrue once the habit is established. That is, of course, the best kind of treatment a person could ever wish for.

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