Why Doctors Are Now Prescribing National Parks as Medication

Feeling burnt out? The mountains can take it from here.

A whale in Pacific Rim National Park Preserve. Some doctors are prescribing national parks visits as medication.
Enough screensavers. Go see the real thing.
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Hundreds of scientific studies have now demonstrated that spending time in nature has mental and physical health benefits for those feeling stressed, uninspired, lethargic or burnt out from the daily (unhealthy) grind of sitting at a desk and staring at a screen.

And all over the world, different nations have different keywords for the importance of getting outside. Japan turns to shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” which is the act of taking in nature using all of your senses. Germany’s mastered the art of volksmarsch, a non-competitive weekend walking event through the woods. Norwegians encourage koselig, which calls for a celebration of the outdoors, even in the depths of winter. And South Koreans “hit mung,” which means letting your mind go as blank as possible in a calm setting, usually in natural environs.

Canada’s doctors have officially seen enough. In response to the sedentary demands of modernity — recent studies show adults spend 93% of their time indoors and “stir crazy” is literally scientific — they’re trying a new approach. British Columbia-based medical professionals are now prescribing national park passes to patients, through a program called PaRx.

After initially finding popularity a few years ago, “nature prescriptions” saw a special uptick during the height of quarantine, in response to rising rates of anxiety and obesity. The United States has about 100 park prescription programs, plus a centralized database (Park Rx America) with a list of searchable parks and public lands. Patients are generally encouraged to visit their local greenspace for a set amount of time each week. Think: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 30 minutes a session.

Canada appears to be thinking a bit bigger, and is prioritizing “patients who live close to national parks, historic sites or marine conservation areas, and also people who might have trouble affording an annual pass,” according to Global News. Eligible patients will each receive a Parks Canada Discovery Pass for free (usual cost: $72), which will secure them entry into places like the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, or Glacier National Park.

These physicians and psychiatrists seem less concerned with whether time in nature will “work,” or exactly what malady it will solve (they’re confident the prescription will improve any variety of mental or physical health conditions). They’re more interested in simply making nature more accessible, and from there, allowing it to do its thing.

While the program is currently concentrated in British Columbia, it should extend to all of Canada by the end of 2022. For those Stateside, mark your calendars for mid-April. Last year, April 17th was International Park Prescription (ParkRx) Day, which allowed free entry to any of the U.S. National Parks.

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