When getting healthy is a walk in the park

August 1, 2017 -- Emilie Christy

When getting healthy is a walk in the park
Doctors prescribe visits to national parks in order to increase physical activity

By Emilie Christy

Doctors are teaming up with the U.S. National Parks Service to encourage a healthy lifestyle nationwide through various initiatives, including physician prescriptions for a “walk in the park.” From California to Vermont, interest is growing and enthusiasm is building among doctors and patients alike.

The Parks Service provides prescriptions printed on a notepad with an “Rx” symbol and instruction for free admission to the park or recreation area. Healthcare providers apply to participate in the program online through the local Parks Service. Not only is this program underlining the benefits of exercise and getting people moving, but it also offers physicians another resource for the treatment of many disorders without having to resort to medication.

Park Rx, the public health initiative promoting healthy communities, under the auspices of the National Park Service’s Healthy Parks Healthy People US, has been the stimulating force behind many programs that have developed in recent years.

Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Care’s Upper Cardozo Community Health Center in Washington, and a staunch proponent of the program, notes that over 40% of adult patients and 25% of pediatric patients are obese, with another 20% being overweight. He has integrated the Park Rx program into the health center system, engaging the National Parks Service, the departments of Health and Parks and Recreation, the National Environmental Education Foundation, the DC American Academy of Pediatrics, George Washington University and Children’s National Medical Center, to create a searchable park database of 350 parks within the city that meet certain criteria, including level of activity, accessibility, cleanliness and safety. Patients with obesity, asthma, hypertension, diabetes and mental health issues can thus take advantage of an exercise program that is included in their treatment plan.

The American Medical Association and the American College of Sports Medicine co-launched Exercise is Medicine (EIM) to make the scientifically proven benefits of physical activity the standard in the U.S. healthcare system. Soon after, representatives from international public health, medical and scientific associations asked them to expand the initial scope beyond the U.S. and begin a multinational collaboration to make EIM a global effort. Currently there are seven regional centers and 43 national centers across the globe.

Physical inactivity is a leading cause of death worldwide, and a major risk factor for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and several cancers. Almost a third of the world population is categorized as being physically inactive. Consequently, the World Health Assembly, branch of the World Health Organization, has made it a priority to combat physical inactivity by launching a global action to help control the rising burden of non-communicable diseases.