Doctors in Canada Can Now Prescribe a Visit to a National Park

We’ve known that there are significant health benefits to spending time outdoors for years. Research has shown that going outside often provides more exercise, gives us exposure to the vitamin D-generating rays of the sun, and has been proven to lessen anxiety. It also improves the quality of our sleep and can increase our resistance to viruses and other ailments. But until recently, doctors couldn’t actually do more than suggest to patients that they be more active and spend some time outside.

Last month, that changed for some doctors in Canada, where they now have the ability to make a very unusual prescription. Thanks to a new program that recently launched there, medical personnel can actually offer a prescription to visit a national park.

banff national park
Photo Credit: Gorgo via WikiMedia

A Prescription for Adventure

Unsurprisingly, the nature-focused, get-outside initiative was launched in British Columbia—one of Canada’s most beautiful and outdoor-friendly provinces. The program is called PaRx (Get it? PaRx? Parks?) and is being piloted by the BC Parks Foundation in partnership with Parks Canada. Doctors who take part in the plan have the ability to offer a prescription for an annual pass to visit any of Canada’s 48 national parks, with the goal of getting more people immersed in the healing power of nature.

The PaRx website cites extended lifespans, increased energy, and improved heart health as reasons why people should go outside. To that end, the program has allowed doctors to give patients a prescription for spending time outdoors for a while now. In the past, those prescriptions came in the form of a set amount of time—say 20 minutes or an hour—for a certain number of times each week. However, this is the first time that national park passes have been available as part of the process.

At the moment, about 2500 doctors are part of the PaRx initiative. Those individuals have the ability to write a prescription for a national parks pass, but a patient can’t just stroll in and ask for one. There are a limited number of passes available and they are meant to be given to patients who might not otherwise be able to afford one. Still, it is an option that could expose more people to the outdoors who might not have done so in the past.

national park
Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons

120 Minutes Per Week

A 2019 research study showed that people who spend 120 minutes—that’s just two hours—or more outside each week were significantly healthier than those who didn’t. The study found that the benefits were gained across all age groups from young children to older adults. It also showed that it didn’t matter if the 120 minutes were broken out over several days or experienced all at the same time, the benefits remained the same.

One could argue that the people who are going outside are already healthier than those who aren’t. But researchers found that the benefits of being outside were observed in all cases, whether you’re going for a trail run or mountain bike ride, versus just taking a stroll around the neighborhood. In other words, just being outdoors had a positive impact on health, whether you’re a marathon runner or someone who rarely exercises at all.

This is what the PaRx program hopes to convey to its patients. They don’t have to be climbing mountains, paddling Class V water, or hiking for miles on need. They simply need to go outside and enjoy some fresh air, take in the sights, and escape the stress of regular life for a while.

Outdoor Thearpy

“There’s almost no medical condition that nature doesn’t make better,” PaRx director Melissa Lem told The Washington Post. She was also quick to note that a single visit to a national park or just going outside once or twice is not a cure-all. Spending time outdoors is a lifestyle that is inherently healthy and for patients to see the benefits they have to adopt that lifestyle for themselves.

It’s too early yet to know if the PaRx program is a success with its patients, but it is a good initiative that hopefully will be adopted in more places. A national park pass sure beats being prescribed traditional medications and it could have longer-lasting and more life-altering effects too.

I know I’m already addicted.

Kraig Becker