From walking on a trail to digging in a garden, swimming in a lake, or simply sitting on a park bench, evidence shows connecting with nature increases energy, creativity and concentration, and reduces stress, anxiety, and chronic pain.
So stop and smell the roses, because the next time you visit your healthcare provider you just might get a prescription for nature.
On Friday, national nature prescription program PaRx (Parks Prescriptions) officially launched in the Maritimes. That means health professionals in all three provinces can now formally prescribe nature to their patients.
PaRx is Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program. An initiative of the BC Parks Foundation, Parks Prescription began more than 10 years ago as a grassroots movement in the United States.
More than 5,000 health Canadian health professionals ranging from physicians, pharmacists, and physiotherapists to nurses and social workers are already prescribers.
With the Maritime launch of the program, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I. join British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario as provinces where health professionals can formally prescribe nature to their patients.
“I talk about the importance of nature as a health behaviour with at least 80% of my clients,” Dalhousie University professor and practicing registered clinical psychologist Dr. Shannon Johnson said in an interview Thursday.
Johnson’s research is dedicated to understanding the mental and cognitive benefits of spending time in — and connecting with — nature. She urges people to make it a regular part of their routine rather than turning to it only in times of stress or to escape something difficult. She offers an online list of ideas to connect with nature in any season.
“Not everyone faces the same barriers, so it’s important to recognize that helping people spend time in nature is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Those prescribing nature time need to also work with their clients and patients to make a feasible plan for incorporating nature into their lives,” Johnson said.
“What’s getting in the way and what would help reduce some of those barriers? Prescribing a National Parks pass might be the right fit for some, whereas providing information about how to get involved with a community garden might be the best fit for others.”
While most people think about sleep, nutrition, and exercise as key health behaviours, Johnson said few recognize connecting with nature is just as critical.
“When you look at the widespread benefits, they’re as good, if not better, than some of those other pillars of health,” Johnson said.
“I think that’s where we’re really heading with this. It’s why we want it into the hands of our medical professionals, to say, look, this is something that is helpful and is necessary.”
‘All about the connection’
Johnson said in addition to the more widely known benefits, there are many physiological changes that occur when people connect with nature. While the mechanisms aren’t fully understood, it can increase immune function and decrease cortisol levels.
She was initially attracted to prescribing nature because of research around ADHD and how connecting with nature can help improve attention.
“The idea is that … our focused attention is a limited resource and we use it all the time, with anything we engage with,” she said.
“The theory is that when we go out in nature, it doesn’t rely on that kind of attention so it gives that attention an opportunity to restore and rest … You come back and you’re more rested.”
Connecting with nature can be as simple as sitting outside with your morning coffee listening to the birds, or going outside on your lunch break for fresh air or to look at nearby trees. Johnson said it’s much more than a recreational activity. It’s ultimately all about the connection.
“You can be in nature and not notice it. You can see people walking in Point Pleasant Park on their phones, so it’s as much about being present and noticing it,” she said.
“There’s tons of nature in our cities, and if you’re open to noticing it and appreciating it and connecting with it, you can get your dose of nature from walking around downtown. The harbour’s there, there are trees, there are ways to connect with nature almost anywhere you are.”
‘Something for everyone’
A key coordinator for PaRx’s Maritime launch, Johnson said there’s strong evidence that having a prescription rather than simply oral advice is a much stronger motivator for people.
“It will also raise awareness of the importance of spending time in nature, and hopefully connect more people at a time when we really need the benefits that it has to offer,” Johnson said.
“We’re in provinces where we actually have pretty easy access to nature. There’s so much of it, and there’s something for everyone out there.”
The launch was intentionally planned to coincide with Earth Day. Johnson said as important as connecting with nature is for human health, it’s also critical for planetary health. She said there’s clear evidence that when people have a connection to nature, they’re more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviours.
“The more disconnected you are, the less you care about these things because you just don’t understand the interconnectedness of it all,” she said.
“Increasing connection increases our environmental behaviour and is going to help us retain our own health in the long run, on a bigger scale.”
Just two hours per week
Dalhousie University medical student Emma McDermott and New Brunswick-based medical student Jacquie Mincer have been working with health professionals in the Maritimes for the last year to ensure the launch of PaRx.
“As a third year medical student and a future health care provider, I think we should be doing everything that we can to help improve the health of our patients as a whole,” McDermott said in an interview.
“Spending time in nature is free … it’s something everyone can try and find something that works for them, and it just adds that little thing into their routine that can improve their health long term and help prevent things from happening later and then being reactive.”
Just two hours per week in 20-minute increments is all it takes for people to reap the benefits of connecting with nature. According to the PaRx website, people who spend at least two hours in nature each week report “significantly better health and wellbeing.”
McDermott said in addition, the most “efficient drops” in cortisol levels tend to occur in 20-minute intervals.
McDermott points to the pandemic as a prime example of people benefitting from nature to improve their mental health. During the early lockdowns when people were instructed to stay close to home, many took to walking their neighbourhoods or visiting local parks and trails.
“I think everyone who did that during the pandemic can say that they were doing it for their mental health, getting out for their time outside is what they could do to save themselves from being locked inside,” McDermott said.
“They saw the benefits that they got from being outside and were regularly fitting it into their routine. So as we’re going back to the hustle and bustle of every day with less restrictions, I hope people continue to do that in their routines moving forward and that we learn from that.”
McDermott believes one of the key benefits of the program is that the definition of “time in nature” is patient dependent.
“It doesn’t matter what they’re doing. They could be sitting on a park bench, they could be observing, exercising, chatting with their friends, listening to music, eating outside,” McDermott said.
“It’s one of the things that makes this program so accessible, because those with mobility concerns or lack of access…they can fit it into their routine of what works for them as long as they feel that they are having a meaningful connection with nature.”
Health professionals interested in participating in PaRx can sign up via the program’s website. They’ll receive a prescription pad, unique prescriber code, and resources to help them work on individual patient plans.
McDermott said a French language PaRx program and accompanying resources are also in the works and will be launched in the near future.
The 15 Maritime organizations endorsing PaRx include the Nova Scotia College of Family Physicians, the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, the Association of Psychologists of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Medicine, and the Kingston/Greenwood Community Health Board.