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As a medical student at the University of British Columbia, Peter Singh has first-hand experience with the healing power of nature. Growing up as a teenager in Surrey, he would instinctively go for runs in the forest when his father was losing his battle with ALS, and when his mother had a brush with cancer. Today, he uses time in nature to deal with stress from isolation from COVID19 and an uncertain future, even participating in guided forest therapy, saying “When I immerse myself in nature it makes my problems seems smaller. It’s hard to feel alone when life is flourishing all around you.”
Since the beginning of COVID-19, BC’s Chief Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has encouraged people to “please, go outside” and safely enjoy B.C.'s outdoor spaces, saying that going for walks and spending time in parks is important for mental health.
And with COVID-19 highlighting the importance of nature to our mental and physical wellbeing, the idea is now being formalized. Today the BC Parks Foundation is launching Canada’s first national nature prescription program, PaRx.
Nature prescriptions were named one of the top eight global wellness trends in 2019. The first nature prescription program was established in the U.S. over a decade ago, and since then the phenomenon has spread to countries around the world, with the UK government recently launching a national pilot.
Dr. Melissa Lem is a Vancouver family physician and Director of PaRx. Dr. Lem prescribed nature for the first time to a student battling Attention Deficit Disorder over a decade ago, and since then has become an advocate for the nature-health connection, championing it in her practice, at medical conferences and guided tours through B.C.’s parks.
“There's a strong and growing body of research on the health benefits of nature time,” says Dr. Lem, who sees nature as an essential health service for all Canadians. “I’m proud to be part of this ground-breaking initiative. It has incredible potential to improve our wellbeing as we deal with so many different challenges to our health.”
Research suggests that spending time in green space boosts immune function and life expectancy, and lowers the risk of developing a host of medical conditions from heart disease to diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety.
Dr. Andrew Day, CEO of the BC Parks Foundation, says the benefits are not only important for individuals, but also for our economy. “Health expenditures to treat chronic diseases and mental illness now outpace our economic growth. We need to change that, pronto, and it means focusing on wellness, not just illness. Creating more parks and getting people into them is one of the most effective and efficient strategies for improving health, reducing healthcare costs and stimulating the economy.”
In the UK, it is estimated the National Health Service could save over £2 billion in treatment costs if everyone in England had equal access to good quality green space. Worldwide, a recent Australian study found that access to protected green spaces provides an estimated US$6 trillion in mental health costs savings every year.
The accessibility of nature time makes it a particularly potent health intervention, no matter what a patient’s location or ability. “As nurses we often partner with physicians and health organizations to deliver care to higher-needs and at-risk populations,” offers RN Jessica Madrid, President of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment. “We see an incredible number of applications for PaRx, including our chronic disease management and community health initiatives.”
Any licensed health-care professional will be able to prescribe PaRx. They will receive a nature prescription file customized with a unique provider code and instructions for how to prescribe and log prescriptions. Featuring practical, evidence-based online resources like quick prescribing tips and printable fact sheets, as well as an achievable green-time target of “2 hours per week, 20+ minutes each time,” PaRx aims to make nature prescriptions easy and effective for both prescribers and patients.
Dr. Lem, who also sits on the board of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, further points to the importance of fostering the nature-health connection for planetary health, saying, “Research shows that people who are more connected to nature are more likely to protect it. The UN Environment Programme estimates that fully embracing nature-based solutions for climate change could get us over 30 per cent of the way to our Paris Agreement carbon emissions targets—which means that health-care providers who prescribe nature are also doing their part for the planet.”
As the weather cools and COVID-19 cases rise across the country, it is a crucial time for healthcare professionals to promote the mental and physical health benefits of heading outdoors, for both their patients’ and their own health. “The BC Parks Foundation is partnering with the Canadian chapter of the Association of Forest and Nature Therapy Guides to provide free, ongoing remote forest therapy sessions to health care professionals so they can assess the benefits firsthand and get some relief,” says Day. The Foundation is also partnering with a variety of groups to provide remote sessions to marginalized and vulnerable populations, who “can use nature’s healing power now more than ever,” adds Day.
The BC Parks Foundation invites other partners, governments and funders to engage and collaborate with PaRx as it rolls out in BC and other provinces and territories over the next year.
The BC Parks Foundation works with British Columbians and our friends from around the world to keep BC beautiful through a spirit of gratitude and well-being. For more info visit bcparksfoundation.ca.