When she was 22, Kyla Glenn broke her hip from slipping on the ice outside her home in Idaho. Doctors recommended physical therapy as part of her healing process, but she quickly found something else that was even better: getting outside. After all, she’d used the healing properties of the great outdoors for her whole life.
Glenn suffered a stroke when she was born, limiting the use of her right side—including foot drop and a semi-closed hand. But through childhood and adolescence, she’d gone outside to help heal. Some of her favorite activities include snowshoeing, kayaking, hiking (“lots of hiking,” she says), swimming and biking. “I do what I can outdoors all the time,” says Glenn, now 26. “I love the exercise, but I also think it helps with my stress and anxiety. I think it would help others also.”
She’s not alone with that line of thought.
From Pennsylvania to the Pacific, patients with a variety of ailments are receiving a unique treatment plan that requires no pharmacy or drugstore counter: Go outdoors. And as pediatricians have seen obesity and anxiety levels spike over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more U.S. health care providers are prescribing calibrated doses of time outside to treat everything from high blood pressure and obesity to anxiety and depression.
“It’s a collaborative effort between conservation organizations, state parks, and physicians or other healthcare providers,” says Duncan Murdoch, a certified nature therapy guide from Vermont, a state with three such Park Rx programs. They allow doctors to prescribe patients with a free state parks pass to treat a variety of physical and mental health issues. “These nature and Park Rx programs help both human wellbeing and environmental conservation,” he adds, noting that doctors can provide a general prescription for patients to spend time in any natural setting outside, not just state parks.
Pennsylvania has also hopped on the bandwagon, with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy launching a pilot program with the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, after a pediatric resident wanted to encourage overweight patients to get outside. The hospital’s “parks system prescription program” has blossomed from there, with a recent survey reporting more than 80% of its doctors are now recommending that patients visit parks and other outdoor spaces.