By Clark Svrcek, MD, CCFP, P.Eng., M.Eng.
I have a disclosure to make, and this may or may not surprise you: I’m a nature nut. I love being outdoors. I tire of doctoring inside and in front of a screen for these past 90 – I mean, 9 – months. I watch my kids explore the park behind our house and I yearn to join them (and do, as often as I can). And as often as I can get outside, it’s still not enough these days, in the longest year ever. The longer I’m glued to my screen, the more I fidget and want to breathe the fresh air and share some nature appreciation moments with people I enjoy.
I’ve been a champion for the health benefits of nature for the last several years, and have started to dabble in research about the built environment and planetary health. In light of the current pandemic indoor and social gathering limitations, it seems timely to draw attention to the benefits of getting outdoors…both personally and professionally.
Where do I Start?
There are so many health benefits to engaging with the natural world. Natural environments reduce stress and activate our parasympathetic nervous system; just looking at nature is enough to relieve stress. Nature walks improve mood and reduce feelings of anxiety – so does the physical activity that comes with that walk. Feeling virtual meeting fatigue? Restore your directed attention with some time in nature. Feeling fed-up? Natural environments encourage pro-social behaviour in our species. Sick and tired of sick and tired? Natural environments encourage healthy immune function and development. One can’t avoid natural environments – they ultimately surround us. The Earth wants to remind us that it’s here for us, and that our human health depends on a healthy environment in return.
Whether it’s an RCT or a functional MRI, there is a growing body of literature that substantiates humans’ benefit from contact time with nature. The “Biophilia Hypothesis” (popularized by Edward O. Wilson in his essays Biophilia, 1984) suggests we have an innate need to connect with nature, to the point that we subconsciously seek out connections with other life. Exposure to natural environments – whether it’s a formal park, your own backyard, or an urban greenspace – has positive effects on our wellbeing.
So in this age of physical distancing and necessary small group gatherings, what are we to do? How does one go about recommending a healthy dose of nature? “Where do I begin?” and “What resources can I offer them?” and “Is there a handout for that?”
A Prescription for Nature
Well, B.C. Parks Foundation’s first-ever national, evidence-based nature prescription program ParksRx (or PaRx), may hold the answer! This simple “program” involves a physician or other healthcare professional prescribing or recommending parks/nature activities for patients. As the BC Parks Foundation points out, the prescription also has to happen in real places and times — within existing green/blue/snowy white spaces, with existing infrastructure, and existing programs. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we just need to get outdoors!
In so many ways, the partnership element between health and parks is what makes this social prescribing so effective. Particularly in an era when the benefits of feeling like one “belongs” somewhere has value, when our sense of community is under threat from multiple fronts.
Join the Movement
PaRx launched at the end of November in B.C. and a few collaborators in Calgary and Edmonton are excited to endorse and support the project taking root in Alberta. If you’d like to get involved yourself, visit: www.parkprescriptions.ca. And if it’s good for our patients, it’s good for us as practitioners, too.
Stay safe, and I’ll pay my respects to you, my indefatigable colleagues and friends, from an appropriate physically-distanced outdoor space,