Canadian Doctors Help Patients Get Outdoors by Prescribing Time in Nature
Carving out the time from busy work and family schedules is a challenge for many of us. But what if your health care practitioner wrote you an official nature prescription?
Enter PaRx—a program that helps health care practitioners in Canada officially prescribe nature. We sat down with PaRx Director, Melissa Lem, MD, CCFP, FCFP, and program participant Lisa Murray-Doran, ND, R.Ac to learn why spending time in nature is good for overall health and how PaRx is helping Canadian NDs get their patients outside.
Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
It’s no secret spending time outdoors improves both physical and mental health. Recent research shows getting outside can improve heart health and immune function and reduce anxiety and depression. Dr. Lisa Doran, ND, has recommended outdoor time to her patients for nearly 25 years.
But now, her advice is backed by scientific research. “Forest bathing research shows that trees breathe out chemicals that benefit our immune and nervous systems,” explains Murray-Doran.
Have you ever felt calmer after a walk in the woods? That’s because trees increase our levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin.
But that’s not the only reason why forest walks improve overall health. “We spend so much time in a 2D world sitting in front of the screen,” explains Murray-Doran. “In the 3D world, our ears have to track the sound of the birds. Our eyes have to watch the uneven ground. Our muscles have to adjust for roots, rocks, and going up and downhill. It makes us feel calmer when our muscles give us the feedback of walking on uneven ground.”
How Children with Behavior Issues May Benefit
Murray-Doran points to special benefits for children with behavioral issues, ADHD, or who are on the autism spectrum. “They benefit from the sensory input of being outside,” she explains. “They’re moving their legs over uneven ground, rather than playgrounds that tend to be flat and predictable.”
It’s not about rushing kids through a hike —it’s about letting them find something to do. “As adults, we tend to over program things,” says Murray-Doran. “The program is simply ‘let’s discover’. When these kids slow down and find something interesting, their behavior shifts because they can engage in the world. It calms them, rather than overstimulating them.”
How Do Nature Prescriptions Benefit Patients?
Any health care practitioner can recommend that their patients spend time in nature. So, what’s the benefit of official nature prescriptions?
“Evidence shows the writing of a prescription down on a piece of paper increases patient motivation to carry out that advice,” explains Lem. “It’s a way to put a bit of extra oomph into that verbal recommendation.” Based on the latest research, they recommend people spend at least two hours a week in nature, for at least 20 minutes each time.
PaRx entered into a partnering agreement with Parks Canada to reduce financial barriers to nature access. Health care practitioners can prescribe 1 free, annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass per month. Worth approximately CA$70 ($54.50 US), pass holders get unlimited admission to over 80 national parks, marine conservation areas, and historic sites.
Ultimately, nature prescriptions give patients permission to spend time outdoors. Lem explains, “To hear their physician say it’s important to prioritize nature time, it gives them permission to do so. When patients hear that it is just as important as exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet, they take it more seriously.”
Dr. Murray-Doran registered with PaRx in early 2022 and has prescribed two passes so far. She reports, “Both patients are planning road trips, and these passes are a bridge-building between our beautiful national parks in Canada and medicine. It legitimizes my recommendations to go and spend some time with nature.”
“Patients say that it’s a joyful prescription they are excited to fill,” states Lem. “That’s why practitioners keep prescribing nature—because of the feedback they’re getting from patients.”
The Healing Power of Nature is one of the six principles of Naturopathic Medicine.
“Medicine doesn’t have to come from a substance we take in, like a pill or tea,” says Murray-Doran. “It can be the air that you breathe, the grass that feels awesome between your toes, the wind in your face, and breathing in what the trees breathe out.”
Are you ready to reap the health benefits of spending time in nature with the support of a Naturopathic Doctor? Use our Find an ND search tool to find a Naturopathic Doctor in your area.
Antonelli M, Donelli D, Barbieri G, Valussi M, Maggini V, Firenzuoli F. Forest Volatile Organic Compounds and Their Effects on Human Health: A State-of-the-Art Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(18):6506. Published 2020 Sep 7. doi:10.3390/ijerph17186506
Farrow MR, Washburn K. A Review of Field Experiments on the Effect of Forest Bathing on Anxiety and Heart Rate Variability. Global Advances in Health and Medicine. January 2019. doi:10.1177/2164956119848654
Park BJ, Shin CS, Shin WS, et al. Effects of Forest Therapy on Health Promotion among Middle-Aged Women: Focusing on Physiological Indicators. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(12):4348. Published 2020 Jun 17. doi:10.3390/ijerph17124348
Stier-Jarmer M, Throner V, Kirschneck M, Immich G, Frisch D, Schuh A. The Psychological and Physical Effects of Forests on Human Health: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(4):1770. Published 2021 Feb 11. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041770
The Healing Power of Nature. Institute for Natural Medicine. https://naturemed.org/faq/the-healing-power-of-nature/
Wen Y, Yan Q, Pan Y, Gu X, Liu Y. Medical empirical research on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku): a systematic review. Environ Health Prev Med. 2019;24(1):70. Published 2019 Dec 1. doi:10.1186/s12199-019-0822-8
Zare Sakhvidi MJ, Knobel P, Bauwelinck M, et al. Greenspace exposure and children behavior: A systematic review. Sci Total Environ. 2022;824:153608. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.153608