ParkRx and the Eco-Therapy Movement

You’ve probably heard of psychotherapy, equine therapy, and group therapy, but what about ecotherapy? Ecotherapy is a nationwide trend that’s working to add one more tool to the array healthcare providers use to integrate care across the medical health neighborhood. The philosophy behind the trend is that prescribing specific interactions with nature like walking and exploring local parks will benefit patients with chronic conditions such as depression, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and ADHD. It’s gaining acceptance in mainstream medicine and carrying more weight with patients when prescribed by a doctor.

The ParkRx Program

Facilitating ecotherapy is a nationwide program called ParkRx – a community health initiative that strives to strengthen the connection between the healthcare system and public lands. Based in approximately 150 locations around the country, it includes such prescriptions as gardening, physical exercise in a natural environment, involvement in conservation activities, and mindfulness exercises such as listening to slow-moving water, observing leaves rustling in the wind, and listening to the sounds of birds chirping.

The Concept of Nature

It’s far from a new concept. As far back as the 1800s (and earlier) Henry David Thoreau was living and writing about the idea that health was achieved through diet, exercise, and contact with nature. His writings are as relevant today as they were in his day. He said, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields…”

Research supports the notion that spending time in nature makes people healthier. And with so many chronic diseases plaguing the healthcare system and with so many of them linked to inactivity, ParkRx is a movement that makes sense.

In an article published by Park Prescriptions, they cite a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that revealed fewer than 14 percent of primary care providers regularly gave any form of counseling on exercise. But they cite a growing body of evidence that suggests that exposure to nature and outdoor exercise (as opposed to exercising at a club) has significant health benefits such as improved mental health, reduced stress, weight-loss, improved A1c levels, and lower blood pressure.

Idaho’s ParkRx Program

Here in Idaho, the Kaniksu Land Trust (KLT) in Bonner County established a partnership between local parks and health care practitioners who help patients figure out how to start an outdoor routine that will become part of a healthy lifestyle. KLT’s original program goal was to prescribe outdoor walking to more than 200 residents by the summer of 2016. But, according to Suzanne Tugman, KLT’s Director of Community Outreach, they have “exceeded that goal by multiples.”

KLT launched its ParkRx program in 2015 with Kaniksu Health Services (KHS) which now has clinics in the State Healthcare Innovation Plan (SHIP) Cohorts One and Two. Says a provider with KHS, “I target patients with obesity, depression, alcoholism, chronic pain, and the elderly who need socialization. The impact I witnessed with my patients was huge. They reported increased activity tolerance, happiness, better sleep, less pain, and an increase in friendships.” She continued, “I had a patient who was an alcoholic who went weekly. He said it was the one thing he had found that kept him sober.”

Tugman of KLT says that reconnecting individuals with nature infiltrates every aspect of physical and mental wellbeing. In addition, she says, there’s a benefit for practitioners who now have another tool to add to patients’ recovery programs and who feel they have backing from the community for this program. And it reconnects people with public lands in their own communities.

The movement is a win-win for everyone. If you’d like more information about the ParkRx program, please visit http://parkrx.org/sites/default/files/ParksPrescriptions_REPORT.pdf 

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