Washington leads the charge on prescriptions for nature

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Fishing — here at Deception Pass State Park — is one of many ways to recharge in nature.

Oct. 2, 2019

In support of Mental Illness Awareness Week, get your dose of nature with a Park Rx

Feeling blue? Or are stress levels making you sick?

Why not head for a park?

Mental Illness Awareness Week

If you live with a mental illness, and you know you feel better when you’re outdoors, hopefully you’ve made time in nature a regular thing.

Numerous studies show that spending time in nature lowers cortisol levels (the stress hormone), blood pressure and heart rate — and elevates dopamine and serotonin (our bodies’ internal feel-good hormones).

Oct. 6 – 12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. And while mental illness is a complicated, sensitive topic with no one-size-fits-all cure, Washington State Parks believes nature can play a role in helping people heal.

Increasingly, so do Washington health care providers.

This past spring, Washington State Parks began working with the national Park Rx America, which offers a platform for health care providers to write nature prescriptions for patients.

Prescriptions include — but are not limited to — activities and relaxing in parks, including Washington’s state parks.

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With Park Rx, health care providers can write prescriptions for active time in nature, including a simple walk in a park, such as Peace Arch Historical State Park.

Thirty swimming pools of fat

Laura Fox, DO of Bellingham Bay Family Medicine was one of the first physicians to sign up. She cites a study out of Stanford University, in which researchers had one group get active in urban areas and another in nature. Parts of the brain associated with depression and anxiety were less triggered in those who worked out in nature.

According to another study, funded by Oregon’s Parks and Recreation Department, nature keeps our wallets and waistlines happier, too.

In Oregon, outdoor recreation saved the state $1.4 billion a year in health care costs.

Even more impressive? Oregon outdoor recreationists burned 144 million pounds of fat in 2017  — enough to fill 30 Olympic swimming pools!

How Park Rx works

Before Fox writes a prescription, she discusses the patient’s health and matches that person with parks.

She asks whether the patient prefers parks on their homebound commute, near home or near work. Will they visit with kids or dogs? Do they need paved trails? Then, she texts, emails or prints out convenient park locales and descriptions. The system allows her to send auto-reminders weekly by email or text.

She said her patients have responded well, because: A. It’s an actual prescription, not just a doctor giving advice, and B. It’s individualized and specific, versus simply recommending “the gym” or “exercise.” 

Fox is one of 86 Washington healthcare providers participating in Park Rx.

Washington is No. 1 in the nation for provider participation and has even expanded the program to include veterinarians. (The national program currently has one veterinarian.)

Providers don’t have to be physicians. Therapists, social workers, nurse practitioners, yoga instructors and other health care providers can sign up at www.parkrxamerica.org.

Park Rx makes the prescription process simple for providers. It even offers a toolkit, including a short instructional video.

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Health care providers write park prescriptions for children and adults. Here, two kids play at Steptoe Butte State Park Heritage Site.

Who gets a Park Rx?

Fox estimates she has written 60-plus park prescriptions since 2017.

She encourages patients to discover their parks, whether they’re grandparents, new parents or people living alone and whether their ailments are mental, physical or both.

In addition to working with Park Rx America and health care providers, State Parks  partners with the Washington Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (WDVA) counseling and wellness program, which says hiking, camping and fishing can be healing for veterans.

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Exercise is grand, but park visitors also benefit from relaxing, like this camper at Lincoln Rock State Park.

 Embrace Your Nature

When suggesting state parks, Fox names Larrabee, Birch Bay and Deception Pass as favorites.

Almost every Washington county has a state park, including many accessible by bus. Check out these Adventure Awaits blogs that feature public transportation options:

Other parks sit within an hour of a large city as well as in remote locations or the backcountry.

Learn More

Want to learn more about Park Rx?
Visit the website!

Have you had a great state parks experience?
Tell us about it and share your photos on our story share page!