Canadian doctors are prescribing free passes to national parks

Canadian doctors are prescribing free passes to national parks

Doctors are teaching their patients to wander the park paths, hear the crunch of leaves under their feet, and breathe fresh air. It is part of the BC Parks Foundation’s growing PaRX program, which aims to improve people’s mental and physical health by connecting them to nature.

Since PaRX launched in November 2020, participating doctors have prescribed countless hours in the sun.

“We have a standard recommendation to spend at least two hours in nature each week and at least 20 minutes each time to maximize these health benefits,” PaRx director and family physician Dr. Melissa Lem told CNN. “There is hardly any condition for which nature is not good, from diabetes to hypertension. ADHD in children, anxiety and depression.”

A recently announced partnership with Parks Canada Agency will build on this success by allowing physicians to prescribe and provide Parks Canada Discovery Passes to their patients. Free passes grant entry to 80 sites, including national parks, marine conservation areas, and historic sites across Canada.
“We are very fortunate in Canada to have a world of beautiful natural spaces on our doorstep to enjoy healthy outdoor activities,” said Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, in a press release announcing the new initiative. . “This exciting partnership with PaRx is a breakthrough in how we treat mental and physical health challenges and it couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to confront the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives.”

‘The fourth pillar of health’

Clemont grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Toronto, where she was usually the only black person in her school and neighborhood, she says. Often confronted with racism and a feeling of “just not belonging,” Clemont sought solace in nature, whether it was her parents’ garden or a nearby park.

After visiting a national park for the first time at the age of 8, Clemont realized she wanted to work in a profession that would allow her to bring nature into people’s lives.

Decades later, after graduating from medical school and becoming a family doctor, she found a way to combine her passion for nature with healthcare. In 2019, Lem reached out to the BC Parks Foundation and shared her research showing how spending time in nature can lead to better physical and mental health.

Within a year, he had partnered with the foundation to launch the PaRx program.

“There are so many ways that nature is good for our bodies and our brains, so it’s also a really effective health intervention,” Lem said. “We like to say it should be the fourth pillar of health, along with a healthy diet, sleep and exercise.”

Lem isn’t alone in believing that nature can heal.

Numerous studies have shown that exposure to nature can counteract depression, decrease stress levels, improve blood pressure, and increase creative and cognitive abilities.

A 2017 study by researchers from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that living in or near green areas can help women live longer and improve their mental health. Another study, published in 2021, found that urban children who are exposed to the woods on a daily basis have better cognitive development and a lower risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
PaRX is not the first program to act on these results. Similar programs have been rolled out around the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom.

“It has been so rewarding to be a part of this important work and to help reduce barriers to access to nature,” Lem said. “I think we are well on our way to socializing the idea that nature is the fourth pillar of health and making nature’s prescription a traditional idea.”

“Within six weeks, the depression had lifted so much”

Marjorie Schurman says she doesn’t need medical studies to prove nature’s healing power – she’s experienced it firsthand.

In 2020, the Vancouver resident visited a doctor to get help with her depression.

“I just said, ‘I can’t shake this depression. I feel so like I can’t get out of the spider solitaire game,'” Schurman told CNN. “He says, ‘I have the right recipe for you.’ Oh, good morning, another pill. “

But instead of a pharmaceutical solution, Schurman’s doctor prescribed nature’s time – at least two hours a week, a minimum of 20 minutes each time.

“Within six weeks, the depression had lifted so much …” Schurman said. “We know there is science about the impact of being in nature, being with trees, hugging a tree, you will feel better. So I supported it wholeheartedly and I am an example of how it works.”

The BC Parks Foundation fully supports Schurman’s drive to hug trees. They hope PaRx inspires more Canadians to see the value of nature and take climate change seriously.

“If you love something, you want to protect it. They tend to recycle more, they tend to save more electricity and engage in more climate action,” Lem said. “So we like to think with our program that every time someone writes a recipe for nature we are doing our little part for the planet.”

As of February 2022, over 4,000 licensed healthcare professionals, including nurses, doctors and psychologists, had enrolled in the PaRx program. However, due to privacy laws, it’s unclear how many natural prescriptions they wrote.

It will see the partnership between BC Parks Foundation and Parks Canada Agency doctors prescribe 100 free subscriptions for the first year. The passes will be prioritized for Canadians living near national sites and those who doctors believe need them most, Parks Canada spokesperson Megan Hope told CNN.

“This partnership initiative will support the health and well-being of Canadians, increase their connection to nature and improve accessibility to natural heritage sites,” said Hope, adding that the number of passes provided “will be re-evaluated in subsequent years. “.

PaRX already has it changed the way many Canadian medical professionals and their patients think about nature, Lem said. But the program still has a long way to go.

“When medical schools start teaching nature, prescribing and recommending nature as important as a healthy diet and lifestyle, I’ll know we’re getting there,” he said.

CNN’s Evelio Contreras and Jeff Kopp contributed to this report.


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