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PaRx: A prescription for nature

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Sitting on the beach at Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park, I look out across the water. Gentle waves are rolling in, and I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. I take in a deep breath of fresh air. Surrounded by tall evergreens, there’s just something different about the air here. My heart swells as my four-year-old son smiles and waves in between excitedly tossing pebbles into the water.

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Sitting on the beach at Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park, I look out across the water. Gentle waves are rolling in, and I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. I take in a deep breath of fresh air. Surrounded by tall evergreens, there’s just something different about the air here. My heart swells as my four-year-old son smiles and waves in between excitedly tossing pebbles into the water.

This is what I would call my happy place. No screens, no distractions, just quality mom-and-son time, unplugged and living in the moment. On this late September day, we’re one of the only groups here, and it’s the perfect way to “fill” my PaRx nature prescription.

Earlier this year, my family doctor introduced me to the PaRx program. Our society is prone to busy schedules, too much screen time and not enough green time. I was definitely feeling the lack of quality time outside in nature.

Catherine Whitecloud walks with her daughter Hannah Johnson and dog Carter at the Riverbank Discovery Centre last month. (Tim Smith/The Brandon Sun)

The prescription calls for two hours per week in nature, at least 20 minutes at a time. I also received a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which allows free admission to national parks for a year. Getting a “prescription” for nature from a medical professional made me think more seriously about it, and I made a point to take the hour-long drive with my son and husband to Riding Mountain National Park whenever possible.

In addition to the usual outdoor play with my son, I became more intentional about getting outside for walks in my neighbourhood, at the Riverbank Discovery Centre, or even a 10-minute meditation in the backyard. Taking in the sights and sounds and being fully present.

I have noticed I have more peace of mind, and feel more spiritually connected when I have regular time outside. It is a natural stress reliever, helps with mental clarity and feelings of anxiety. I simply feel happier.

Doctors across Canada are now prescribing nature to their patients, as part of the PaRx program. An initiative of the British Columbia Parks Foundation, the program launched in November 2020. The program’s founder and director is Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver family physician. In its first year, the PaRx Nature Prescription program saw approximately 1,000 health professionals registered. In January 2022, the Parks Canada collaboration was announced, and the number of health professionals has since swelled to 10,000.

More than five per cent of all practising doctors in Canada are registered, Lem said, and in B.C., it is more than 15 per cent. For a profession that can be slow to adopt new practice innovations, Lem said it is incredible that they have managed to mobilize that many doctors in just two years.

“It just speaks to how compelling the message is, and how much sense it makes to people that spending time outside in nature is one of the best things we can do for our health,” Lem said. “It’s both intuitive, and it’s backed up by research, which is the best combination.”

Research shows that kids and adults who spend more time in nature are happier and healthier, according to ParkPrescriptions.ca. “PaRx is breaking ground as Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program.”

Studies show that time in nature can positively impact mental health, cardiovascular health, respiratory health/ immunity, cancer care and elder health.

Dr. Laurel Stevenson, family doctor at Western Medical Clinic in Brandon, is one of the local physicians registered with the PaRx program. While technological advancements have been wonderful in so many ways, Stevenson said it has resulted in people not needing to spend as much time outside.

“We have cars to commute and we have things to entertain us inside,” she said. “So I think we probably do as a society have to try to be intentional about getting outside.”

She added that studies show when a prescriber actually recommends a set amount of time and a set number of days per week in nature, people will be more likely to make it a part of their treatment plan.

Kids who head outside are more likely to hit their physical activity targets and have healthier body weights. (Jillian Austin)

Stevenson said she wants to get into even more of a habit of prescribing nature to patients, after seeing such compelling research showing health benefits for many medical conditions, from blood pressure all the way to mental health.

“It can have measurable benefits, probably a combination of exercise, which is beneficial to mental health, but also the natural light, which can help regulate our circadian rhythm and help with sleep,” she said. “It’s kind of like a built-in mindfulness practice when you’re outside because you’re not able to be distracted necessarily so you’re taking in the sights and sounds.”

Lem recalls feeling a “nature deficit” in the early days as a new mom, and how simply getting outside could make such a difference.

“If I didn’t get to spend time outside, at least for half an hour during the day, I felt like I was going stir crazy,” she said. “I’m the type of person who just has to go outside, at least once per day, otherwise I feel edgy, I don’t feel like I’m focusing that well.”

Another time Lem felt impacted by a lack of nature was when she moved from northern B.C., where she was surrounded by nature, back to Toronto.

“Suddenly my view wasn’t mountains and forest anymore — it was glass and concrete,” she said. “It was such an abrupt change, and that’s when I started to notice in myself I was feeling a nature deficit.”

She dove into research and found countless studies on the topic of nature positively impacting chronic disease and mental health.

“I thought, oh my goodness … I didn’t learn about this in medical school, it’s not in the public consciousness. I need to make sure that the public and my colleagues and decision makers know about this evidence base behind the health benefits of nature,” she said.

She moved back to B.C. in 2015 and started working with the B.C. Parks Foundation in 2018.

“We had the same vision, which was launching a nature prescription program, a large-scale program, and it just grew from there.”

Jillian Austin and her son Benjamin are pictured at Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park earlier this year. (Jillian Austin)

Catherine Whitecloud, owner and founder of NextGen Yoga in Brandon, has been recommending doses of nature to her pre- and postnatal clients, and essentially “prescribing” herself daily nature time for years. While not part of the PaRx program herself, she was happy to hear of the initiative happening across the country.

“I think it’s amazing that the medical community is starting to recognize the significance, or the lack of people getting out,” she said. “So many people don’t even think about it. They go from home to work and back to home again and never see the light of day or smell fresh air, which is pretty concerning for our population’s health for sure.”

One of the first intentional exercises Whitecloud recommends for new mothers is simply getting outside for a walk.

“It’s really easy in those early days of postpartum, to feel very overwhelmed, very emotional, very isolated, and it’s amazing what just walking around the block and getting fresh air and seeing the sun can do for your mental health,” she said

In the seasons that allow, Whitecloud recommends grounding outside with bare feet. She said we release excess energy into the earth, and this can help improve sleep, including normalizing the circadian rhythm — our natural rhythm of sleep/wake that’s supposed to align with the sun rising and setting. She noted that getting out in the sunshine naturally builds up Vitamin D stores.

Whitecloud tries to get at least 20 minutes outside per day, usually in the form of a walk followed by a 20-minute play with her toddler, as long as the temperature is OK.

“Navigating and transitioning to winter is always challenging, but I think that we make far too many excuses,” Whitecloud said. “There’s ways to get around the cold … and there’s still just so much benefit to being outside that it’s not worth it to miss.”

It can be a little more difficult to enjoy the outdoors in Manitoba winters, but Lem adds that five minutes is better than nothing. She has spent time working in cold climates, including Yellowknife, so she relates to us in Manitoba.

“If you’re wearing the right gear and you’re moving, I think you can do more than you think. Step outside for five minutes and jump around in the snow,” Lem said.

“Have your little nature microdoses and you’ll feel better.”

As part of the PaRx Nature Prescription program, patients may receive a Parks Canada Discovery Pass to enjoy the outdoors. Riding Mountain National Park is pictured. (Jillian Austin)

If it is not possible to get outside, Lem said even listening to nature sounds or looking at a picture of nature can improve mental health. You can also bring some nature inside with house plants.

In addition to helping people become more healthy through nature, the PaRx program is also focused on a healthy environment.

“There is research showing that people who are more connected to nature are more likely to protect it and they are more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours beyond conservation, like recycling and energy conservation and engaging in climate action,” said Lem, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“So it’s a way to shift people’s attitudes and values in a more pro-nature way, and in a way that makes the planet healthier, too.”

» Jillian Austin is a freelance reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative and real estate agent with Century 21 Westman Realty.

» jillianaustin.news@gmail.com

» Twitter @jillianaustin

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