Doctors Are Now Prescribing Visits to National Parks to Improve Health

A stack of dead wood next to a pond in Rouge National Park, Toronto, Canada.

Canadian doctors have started writing 'prescriptions' so their patients can spend time in national parks to get the healing benefits of nature. (Image: Eddar27 via Wikimedia Commons)

Being in nature is good for mental and physical health. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, improves your mood, and a whole lot more. Nature can heal. That is why Canadian healthcare practitioners are joining the global wellness trend by prescribing time in national parks to enhance patients’ health.

How can national narks improve your health?

A health initiative launched by the BC Parks Foundation with help from Parks Canada gives passes to different doctors across four provinces that can be used as prescriptions for passes to national parks. The program, known as Park Prescriptions (PaRx), began in 2019 by giving out an initial batch of 100 passes.

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Each pass gives free access to over 80 national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas. PaRx director Dr. Melissa Lem suggests people spend two hours a week, at least 20 minutes at a time, in nature.

In an email to NPR, Prama Rahman, a coordinator for the BC Parks Foundation’s Healthy By Nature Program, said: “Given the growing body of evidence that indicates nature time can improve all kinds of different physical and mental health conditions, we’re hoping that our PaRx program not only improves patient health, but reduces costs to the healthcare system, and helps to grow the number of people who are more engaged environmental advocates.”

Two people standing on a dock surrounded by canoes at Moraine lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, with mountains in the background.
Time spent in nature is good for both mental and physical health. (Image: Ketian Chen via Dreamstime)

“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. 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…” said Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, in a statement.

Dr. Melissa Lem, director of PaRx, mentioned that she was proud to help grow Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program. According to her, PaRx plans to gather information about transportation options that stop at the parks and include it with each nature prescription. That way, it will be easier for those who don’t have a car to go to their favorite national parks.

Benefits of nature to health

One national park pass can help enhance one’s health. Time in nature can help people improve attention and mood, lower stress, and even minimize psychiatric disorders. 

According to Lisa Nisbet, a psychologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, evidence from dozens of researchers shows that there are actual benefits from nature in terms of both physical and mental wellbeing. 

Maligne Lake and Spirit Island on a sunny summer day in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The nature prescription gives people access to over 80 national parks, conservation areas, and historic sites across Canada for free. (Image: Francesco Riccardo Iacomino via Dreamstime)

3 health benefits from visiting national parks

1. Decreases stress

Viewing nature can help lower the physiological effects of stress, causing a decrease in muscle tension, heart rate, and pulse transit times. Even employees with a view of nature in their workplace have lower job stress and higher job satisfaction.

2.Improves memory

Being in nature can help improve one’s short-term and working memory. A study suggests taking walks in natural places, such as national parks, can enhance your short-term memory by 20 percent.

3. Relieves depression and anxiety

For anyone who struggles with depression or anxiety, a simple walk in the park or even sitting in a green space can help them feel more alive. Some mental health issues can be eased by spending time in a green space, especially when combined with exercise.

Of course, people don’t need permission from their doctor to go outside, but those involved with the PaRx program have found that when a person gets a prescription to spend time in nature they are more likely to actually do it. So it’s a good thing that PaRx decided to start giving out national park passes. That way, maybe more people can experience the benefits that come from connecting with nature.

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