As a freelance writer, I’m one of the growing number of women who spends her day hunched in a near-constant state of anxiety over her desk. My life centers around deadlines, often breathlessly tight ones, and the constant hustle to keep myself afloat is taxing. It started to wear on me.
Wired and with an increasingly painful tension in my neck and shoulders, I recently found myself unable to sleep, a problem that triggered a snowball effect of other health issues: decreased attention span and difficulty concentrating, a weakened immune system, increased irritability.
Unsurprisingly, my doctor promptly diagnosed me with chronic stress. But I was surprised by my prescription: spend more time outside.
The Park Ranger Will See You Now
Park prescription programs—the official name for the Rx I was given to help treat my debilitating stress—may sound like the latest woo-woo wellness trend but they’re actually gaining steam among mainstream medical providers.
Here’s how it works: in lieu of a more traditional method of treating stress and anxiety, like meditation or therapy, a doctor might give you a referral to a local green space. “In the ideal clinical setting, doctors talk with patients about how far to walk, help them find a space to walk”—sometimes using a specific local trails program—“and set small goals, like going outside three times per week for a half hour per session,” says Kristin Anderson, M.D., a family physician in Missoula, Montana, and a member of the state’s Trails Rx program. That prescription goes right into your electronic medical record so your doctor can track your progress—just as you’d book a follow up appointment after being prescribed a new medication, your doctor would check in on how things are going, how you’re feeling, and whether your prescription needed any adjustment. “It’s really similar to how you prescribe medicine,” Anderson says. At follow-up appointments, doctors might measure things like BMI, blood pressure, or mental health outcomes in order to quantify results.
It’s important to note that nature prescriptions don’t mean medications are becoming irrelevant. “Medications and other therapies have very important roles in disease management,” Anderson says. Many conditions from depression to diabetes can’t be cured with self-care alone—if you need meds, you should take them. Prescribing time in nature is often about working in tandem with traditional drugs, Anderson says. “Nature prescriptions highlight the cross between the importance of medical management and behavior change. When that synergy occurs, patients are more likely to see lasting benefits and meaningful results.”
The science behind a park prescription is legit. Hundreds of studies link time outside to better health outcomes: lower blood pressure and heart rate, better immune system function, lower stress. Two hours spent outside a week is all you need to reap the benefits, according to a 2019 study from Scientific Reports. Doctors are so convinced by the healing power of Mother Nature that park prescriptions are gaining traction as recognized medical treatments for a range of conditions: heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, chronic stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even PTSD.
While a growing body of research (and number of#forestbathing posts on Instagram) suggests simply going for a walk in the park can do your brain and body good, many nature Rx programs are more structured. “There’s a vast array of different types of programming across the country, but they all have one thing in common: a referral from the health care side, and a partner on the public lands system side that can connect with the patient and provide the actual prescription,” says Diane Medley, director of the Institute at the Golden Gate. One program in California, Stay Healthy in Nature Everyday (SHINE) busses groups of patients, doctors and naturalists to local parks each month for a dose of nature and social connection. Other programs include guided walks with a park ranger, trailhead displays, or a tie-in to the national Walk with a Doc program where people can ask questions and learn about health from a local physician.