A trip to the doctor can yield any number of recommendations, from bed rest to medicine. But as of late January, Canadian patients can be sent home with more novel note: a prescription for a national parks pass.
"There's almost no medical condition that nature doesn't make better," said Melissa Lem, a family physician and director of the PaRx initiative, which partnered with Parks Canada to help distribute the initial batch of 100 passes. While similar programs elsewhere have offered regional or local park visits, Lem believes this is the first such initiative with a national annual pass.
"Visiting a park once is great," she said. "But it doesn't in a very meaningful way reduce the barrier to nature access."
Lem helped start Canada's PaRx campaign in 2019 and it has since expanded to four provinces. It's part of a broader movement that Lem says was in part inspired by ParkRx in the United States.
The goal is to provide health care professionals with tools that encourage their patients to spend more time in nature - whether that's a hike, gardening or just sitting outside. The standard recommendation for Lem's program is two hours of nature time per week, in no less than 20 minute intervals.
Studies have shown that time in nature can lead to a range of benefits, from lower stress hormones and heart rate variability to higher self esteem among children. One found that nature or pleasant urban settings helped amplify the effects of exercise alone. "Spending time in nature supercharges the benefits," said Lem.
She also pointed to nature as a possible treatment for anxiety, including climate anxiety or eco-anxiety. As natural disasters and the effects of climate change become more frequent, researchers say mental health issues are exacerbated.
Video: Struggling with climate anxiety? These tips might help.
A Pew Research Center survey found that out of nearly 20,000 people in 17 countries, almost three quarters of respondents worry climate change will one day create suffering in their own lives.
"We're not getting enough exercise, we're not calming down enough from the tensions of the day," said Florence Williams, the author of "The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative." "We haven't figured out how to solve these, so why not do something that'll help our nervous systems unwind a little bit?"
Since the addition of the park pass, the PaRx network of health care professionals has more than doubled to 2,500 possible prescribers. But with a limited number of initial passes, each health care provider is allotted one prescription per month and encouraged to prioritize those living near a park who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford an annual pass.
Lem said it's also best to work the conversations about a pass into a routine health visit: "We don't want people banging down their doctor's doors to ask for a park pass."
PaRx is on track to have all of Canada's provinces eligible for the park prescriptions network by the end of the year, Lem said.
She believes that the park prescription movement can not only help improve individual health but also address systemic issues such as climate change, as people who spend time in nature tend to be more apt to protect it.
"If you love something, you want to protect it," said Lem. "I like to think that every time I or one of my colleagues writes a park prescription, we're also doing our part for the planet."