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Doctor's Orders: Get Outside

Nature is the best medicine.

By: Emily Kent + Save to a List

We’ve all been to the doctor’s office and have been asked the routine questions: “Do you smoke? What about alcohol? Caffeine? How often do you exercise?” But when was the last time your doctor asked you, “How often do you get outside?” Well, maybe recently.

More and more health professionals are beginning to get behind the notion that a “nature-deficit disorder” is a very real problem, and the seemingly simple order to “get outside” is gaining momentum. Many doctors are “prescribing nature” as a treatment for a slew of health problems and are writing up what have been deemed “Park Prescriptions” as either an alternative or add-on to prescription drugs (The Nature Cure). In many cases it goes without saying, the benefits of exercise and time spent outdoors can go far beyond the potential relief offered by a given medication.

10 Things That Prove Spending Time Outside Makes Us Happier | Photo: Christin Healey

To some, “How often are you outside?” may sound like a simple or strange question coming from the doc. For the avid outdoor-lover, there’s no need to explain what getting out in the fresh air does for you. You need the outdoors like you need food and water. You feel it in your bones if you’ve been cooped up inside for too long.

But it isn’t necessarily the case for everyone. For some, lacing up a pair of hiking boots and hitting the trail isn’t quite that easy. Obstacles are often a combination of factors from family demands to work demands to geographic location. For many living in urban neighborhoods, getting out into the woods and away from the urban sprawl can be a challenge.

Fortunately, in 2011 the U.S. National Park Service initiated a program called “Healthy Parks Healthy People.” The program helps to get local, state and national parks working with scientists, health professionals and businesses to collaborate with one another, making the how-to’s and where-to’s of outdoor activity more accessible and at-the-ready for a greater number of people. We’re seeing an increased number of hospitals, clinics and health centers partnering with park systems and nature centers to implement these “Nature Prescription Programs.” The Healthy Parks Healthy People movement operates on the foundation that healthy parks play a vital role in the health of our society - the mission being, “to reframe the role of parks and public lands as an “emerging, powerful health prevention strategy” (National Park Service).

Explore South Fork Mineral Creek Falls | Photo: Jason Hatfield

I think this movement is potentially one of the most important “meeting of the minds” so to speak. To address individual health problems while seeing the bigger societal picture, it’s essential to incorporate the outdoors as part of the equation, especially when we consider our kids and the future of our healthcare system. Green spaces are becoming a regular part of the doctor-patient conversation, and we can hope things continue in that direction.

It’s understandable that it can pose a real challenge to get all those with a “park prescription” in hand to follow through, get out of the house or the office, and get moving somewhere in the open air. That’s where many of these “Park Prescription” programs are coming into play. Much like the information we can find through The Outbound Collective, the doctor can access a database with information at the ready to write up a personalized exercise plan for an individual, including public parks in or near the patient’s zip code, specifics on access, facilities, trails, etc. From there, details on the type and duration of exercise can be written up. You get the idea. These programs are set up in part to make patient follow-through a likely success.

5 Easy Ways to Add Getting Outside to Your Daily Routine | Photo: Nick Tort

Research is continuing to grow on the topic of nature’s role in our overall well-being, linking the time we spend actively outdoors to great effects around increased mental and physical health, reduced heart disease, obesity, and decreasing instances of depression. What’s more, there is money to be saved.

“If more physical activity in parks could lower the rates of these chronic diseases by a mere 5 percent, estimates from the Institute of Medicine show that it could cut medical costs by about $25 billion annually.”– Daphne Miller, M.D. A Prescription for Nature

If we have more people spending time in green spaces and fewer hooked on couch-potato habits, it’s a collective step in the right direction. When we’re able to recognize that our society as a whole depends upon nature for our collective health and well-being, we’re likely to do a better job of taking care of our natural environment. Whether prescribed to us or not, getting outside needs to begin with a personal interest. From there, we can better ourselves, help one another, and keep our green spaces healthy for our generations ahead.

Cover photo: Emily Kent

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