Imagine going to your doctor and, instead of a prescription for some named or generic pharmaceutical, you instead receive a prescription for a 30-minute walk in nature. This is not actually that far-fetched. Put down the Prozac and pick up your walking shoes.
Paracelsus, the 16th-century German-Swiss physician, wrote: “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” He could not have imagined the advent of the Smartphone, nor a 24/7, digitally enhanced, Instagram-able world.
Much has been written about the evils (and glories) of technology but the resulting dissociation from our natural surroundings leaves us emotionally and physically worse off. We are bereft of nature. Our bodies—and our minds—need nature. And there is hard science to prove it.
In fact, there is enough science about the health benefits of nature to get the attention of the medical profession. Nature as medicine. Just don’t tell Big Pharma.
Canada is famous for its pristine waterways, soaring snowcaps, and beautiful forests from coast to coast to coast. Thanks to a new partnering agreement, health care professionals in four Canadian provinces can now prescribe time in the national park system to boost people’s mental and physical health.
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Parks Canada is collaborating with a program called Park Prescriptions (PaRx). Doctors, nurses, and other licensed health care professionals who register with the program can prescribe nature—and even a Parks Canada Discovery Pass—to their patients.
“We are very lucky in Canada to have a world of beautiful natural spaces at our doorstep to enjoy healthy outdoor activities. Medical research now clearly shows the positive health benefits of connecting with nature,” Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, said in a written statement.
“This exciting collaboration with PaRx is a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges and couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives.”
PaRx is an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation, driven by health-care professionals who want to improve their patients’ health by connecting them to nature. Featuring practical resources like quick tips and patient handouts, its goal is to make prescribing time in nature simple, fun, and effective.
Each prescriber who registers with PaRx will receive a nature prescription file customized with a unique provider code and instructions for how to prescribe and log nature prescriptions.
Parks Prescriptions began as a grassroots movement in the United States over a decade ago. We are proud to be Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program.
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Parks Canada has provided 100 adult Discovery passes this year and will reassess this number in future years. An annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass covers admission to more than 80 destinations for 12 months. The pass sells for $72.25 and provides unlimited access to national parks, national marine conservation areas, and national historic sites for 12 months. The park system is already free for anyone 17 and under.
The BC Parks Foundation is the official charitable partner of BC Parks and the provincial park system. It launched PaRx—Canada’s first national nature prescription program—in November 2020 in British Columbia. In 2021, it expanded the program to Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Winning a prestigious Joule Innovation prize from the Canadian Medical Association, it has garnered widespread enthusiasm across the country with over 1,000 prescribers registered. Doctors, nurses, and other licensed health care professionals are able to add Parks Canada Discovery Passes to the doses of nature they prescribe.
Until now, the nature prescriptions revolved around working out what kind of nature time people should consider, and not something tangible like a park pass. For now, only people in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario are eligible for the Parks Canada passes but the PaRx hopes to expand to Quebec, Alberta, and New Brunswick soon and eventually roll out in every province and territory.
“I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2022 than being able to give the gift of nature to my patients,” said PaRx director Dr. Melissa Lem, a family physician. “There’s a strong body of evidence on the health benefits of nature time, from better immune function and life expectancy to reduced risk of heart disease, depression, and anxiety, and I’m excited to see those benefits increase through this new collaboration.”
Participating prescribers who can prescribe a Parks Canada pass are asked to prioritize patients who live close to national parks, historic sites, or marine conservation areas, and who could benefit from it the most.
For years doctors have discussed the healing qualities of nature and in 2006 a group of doctors in Albuquerque, New Mexico launched Prescription Trails, the first nature-prescribing program. Other programs launched soon afterward, and in 2019, Betty Sun of the Institute at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy said there were 71 programs of this nature operating in 32 different U.S. states.
Nature prescriptions were one of the top eight global wellness trends in 2019 and are cropping up around the world. Countries such as the United Kingdom are now investing in park prescription pilots to help tackle mental and physical health problems and the resulting strain on their health care systems and economies.
Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature
PaRx was recently recognized by the World Health Organization in its COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health where it was featured as a way to inspire protection and restoration of nature as the foundation of our health—one of only two case studies cited from North America.
“Research shows that children and adults who are more connected to nature are not only more likely to work to conserve it but also engage in other pro-environmental behaviors,” said Lem. “I like to think that every time one of my colleagues writes a nature prescription, we’re making the planet healthier, too.”
PaRx has been endorsed by the BC Family Doctors, Saskatchewan Medical Association, Nurse Practitioners Association of Manitoba and Ontario College of Family Physicians. It offers practical, evidence-based online resources like quick prescribing tips and printable fact sheets, plus a green-time target of “two hours per week, 20+ minutes each time.”
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As Canada grapples with the ongoing pandemic, it’s a critical time for health care professionals to promote the mental and physical health benefits of heading outdoors.
“Our goal is to make sure that people who need it can get out easily and affordably to benefit from the healing power of nature,” said BC Parks Foundation CEO Andy Day. “So far, through the generosity of our donors and partners, we have provided free trips and nature therapy sessions during the pandemic to health care workers, seniors, refugees, and vulnerable youth. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see the impact nature has on people.”
Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual satisfaction.
—E. O. Wilson