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The Doctor's Order? Spend More Time in Nature

Park Rx aims to substitute outdoors time for medical treatment.

We’ve all fallen victim to spending too much time cooped up inside, hunched over computers and binge-watching television shows. So in an effort to curb those nasty habits and get young people moving, one innovative Washington, D.C., doctor is teaming up with the National Parks Service to treat sickness with sunshine.

Dr. Robert Zarr is the chief evangelist for Park Rx — a database of parks and greenery that doctors can access when treating patients. The service allows physicians to locate a patient’s electronic record, ask them about what they like to do to keep in shape, and make recommendations to nearby parks based on their preferences.

With the help of the National Parks Service, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and others, Zarr mapped out and rated 380 parks for activities, cleanliness, safety, and transportation accessibility, according to Fast Company. Doctors can print out recommendations with maps and pictures as a sort of natural alternative to prescriptions.

“We wanted to know whether actually prescribing a park during a doctor’s visit would change behavior,” Zarr said. “And the answer was ‘absolutely yes.'”

The program, which launched last July, has already acquired 30 participating doctors at Unity Health Care. The results have garnered around 550 prescriptions and feedback revealed an average increase of 22 minutes of activity per week among 400 children.

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Zarr claims his inspiration stems from Last Child in the Woods, a book about “nature deficit disorder” and its impact on our youth’s health. But the idea is also part of a National Parks Service movement to promote the outdoors as a health prevention strategy. Thanks to the doctor’s advocacy, the program is successfully combining medicine with nature.

While encouraging patients to spend more time outside as a means to improve health is nothing new, Zarr acknowledges it can require some convincing.  “Once you get over the conceptual hurdle of prescribing park, and you believe the scientific literature that clearly says being outside is good for health, then all it takes is to push a button on a computer. They have to do that anyway.”

The nature evangelist is aiming to develop a mobile app and one day, hopes to add, “have you been outside recently?” as a primary question in patient pre-interviews when checking vitals. For many of us, that answer is probably be “not as much as I should.” But hopefully, the Park Rx program is helping to change that.

Source: Fast Company

Courtney is a writer and reporter based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She previously worked for Time.com and TIME International.