Fat: Some 72 million Americans are medically obese and thus at risk of chronic, preventable illnesses such as type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
Sedentary: Four in 10 U.S. adults say they never engage in any exercises, sports, or physically active hobbies in their leisure time, says the CDC.
Disconnected from nature: While the research here is more anecdotal than comprehensive, it’s nonetheless alarming, says the Children & Nature Network, a group chaired by author Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder.”
Fortunately, a loose-knit coalition of smart people are developing a creative approach to these problems that combines economic incentives, environmental awareness, doctors, insurers and the National Park Service.
The approach is called Park Prescriptions, and it’s a simple remedy: Doctors “prescribe” trips to parks, insurance companies create incentives for outdoor activity and people get outside and just feel better.
I first heard about Park Prescriptions from Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service, during a brief visit to Glacier National Park last fall organized by the Society of Environmental Journalists. A lifelong park service leader, Jon is an impressive guy who sees the link between health and the parks as a means to accomplish two goals: get more people into the parks, and help the Park Service put itself on a sounder, more sustainable financial footing.
Since then, Jane Brody wrote about Park Prescriptions in The Times (see Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space) and I learned that my friend Cleveland Justis (we’re both on the board of Net Impact) has been pushing the program through his work at the Institute at the Golden Gate, a public-private effort in San Francisco to promote sustainability. They published a great report on Park Prescriptions, available for download here. Richard Louv talked about the idea in a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Outside initiative is all about getting kids moving around in nature.
None of this is exactly new. In Australia, a campaign called Feel Blue Touch Green, which Jon Jarvis told me about, aims to get people into parks to help them better cope with depression, anxiety, illness and disease. And goodness knows that politicians have been urging Americans to exert themselves since Teddy Roosevelt preached the doctrine of The Strenuous Life. What’s exciting about Park Prescriptions is the way it blends economics, health care and environmentalism–the latter because people who spend more time outdoors tend to value nature.
When I spoke recently with Cleve Justis, he credited a San Francisco family physician named Daphne Miller with coming up with the idea. At a conference at his institute, she wondered out loud, as he recalled it: “What if I could write prescriptions for my patients to go to the parks? To be outside, to be more active, to enjoy the benefits of the natural world?”
Since then, Dr. Miller, Cleve and many others have built a coalition of about 125 medical groups, recreation advocates like the American Recreation Coalition, health care companies and local, state and national governments. A small health insurance firm in San Francisco called SeeChange Health, which emphasizes preventive care, is supporting the effort with grants and looking into ways to reimburse its members for outdoor activity.
“The idea of Park Prescriptions is a metaphor, and it’s literal,” Cleve told me.
“We know exercise is good for people,” he explained. “And we know that people pay attention to doctors’ traditional prescriptions. What we don’t know is whether, if a doctor writes a prescription for a person to go to the park, the person would actually go. We’re hoping to get some major health care companies to help us find out.”
And we don’t know–but we can guess–whether providing economic incentives for people to get outdoors and prevent disease would be cheaper than treating them after they get sick.
What’s needed are clinical trails, er, trials to test the idea.
Some interesting experiments are underway. The Chicago Park District has provided free membership to public gyms to all city residents whose physicians diagnose them with an obesity-related disease. A foundation-funded program in Albuquerque called Prescription Trails New Mexico aims to increase physical activity among people don’t exercise.
As Dr. Miller wrote in the Washington Post:
…it’s not too much of a stretch to think of our national park system as an integral part of our health care system.
So don’t be surprised if, at your next visit to the doctor, you are handed a trail map and itinerary along with your lab slip. In fact, if you are not offered one, you should demand it.