Idea We Love: Doctors Prescribing Parks

What if instead of prescribing medication, your doctor sent you on your way with orders to spend more time at your local parks?

It’s something that’s already happening in Washington, D.C., and will expand nationwide if Dr. Robert Zarr has it his way.

Zarr is the founder of DC Park Rx, an organization with a mission to prevent and treat chronic disease and promote wellness through time spent in parks. He was recently in Grand Rapids as a featured speaker at the mParks Conference and Trade Show.

As a pediatrician, Zarr said he prescribes things to his patients all the time that aren’t medicine in the name of improving health. He advises parents to turn off screens before bed to improve sleep. He touts the virtues of reading to infants as a way of improving their cognitive development.

Inspired by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, Zarr was struck by the idea that prescribing park time made just as much sense.

“There’s nothing different about it,” he said.

He cites a large body of scientific research to support the idea:

  • Time spent in nature is linked with decreased anxiety.
  • Green spaces boost attention span, whereas viewing concrete makes it more difficult to focus on tasks.
  • Walking in parks improved focus in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Viewing and spending time in nature has been shown to lower cortisol and blood pressure.
  • Access to parks reduces one’s risk of becoming overweight or obese.
  • Living in a neighborhood with more opportunity for physical activity is associated with lower risks of type 2 diabetes.
  • Living near green spaces reduces mortality, even when adjusted for sociodemographic factors.

With all the benefits parks provide, Zarr wanted to make a difference in his adopted hometown of Washington, D.C. There’s an abundance of accessible park space, yet the city as a whole has some of the worst health outcomes in the country. His prescription plan connects residents to parks close to them that fit their individual needs through a parks database connected to electronic health records.

Since starting DC Park Rx in 2013, about 300 health care providers in the region have signed on to prescribe parks to their patients. Zarr is hoping to expand the program and plans to roll out Park Rx America soon.

He hopes an increased focus on physical activity and time spent in nature can help those with chronic diseases get on a path to wellness and potentially curb health care spending. For every dollar spent on health care, 86 percent is spent on patients with one or more chronic diseases.

Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for your doctor’s prescription to spend some time outdoors. Feel free to write your own park prescription and start exploring your local recreation spots today. We guarantee your doctor will thank you.

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Photo credit: Jeremy Bronson

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