Woman silhouette at sunset on the mountain

The Healing Power of the Outdoors

How restorative time outside helps a college-student stroke survivor, and explains why nature prescriptions are booming.

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.  

Woman hiker walking on a mountain road, sun shining through the trees, enjoying solitude.

Canada is on board as well, with a decision this fall empowering licensed health-care professionals to prescribe free Parks Canada passes for their patients to help people manage stress and anxiety, while achieving better health and wellbeing. The country’s Park Prescriptions program (PaRx) has been so successful that there are now plans to expand it to every province and territory.  

While she wasn’t aware that these new Nature Rx programs existed, Glenn knows the reasoning behind them firsthand. “I’ve done most of it on my own, regarding getting outside and doing all these activities,” says Glenn, “being outdoors just makes me feel better."

“The outdoors definitely helped me feel like myself again after breaking my hip,” she adds, “it helped me realize that I can get out and still do the outdoor activities I love.” Glenn credits the sounds, smells, and sights of active pursuits outside as much as the byproduct of the exercise itself as the dual keys to its success.  

There’s science on her side as well. The journal Environmental Research found that exposure to the outdoors was associated with wide-ranging health benefits, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as lower rates of diabetes, stroke, asthma, heart disease, and overall death. Similarly, a 2020 study in Frontiers found that as little as 10 minutes of sitting or walking in natural settings reduced stress and improved mental health of college students. The evidence is piling up to support the conclusion that, as study author Donald Rakow reported, “time in nature as opposed to time in an indoor environment is beneficial.”   

Pediatrician Dr. Robert Zarr is another proponent who regularly writes prescriptions for the outdoors, going so far as to found Park Rx America, a nonprofit encouraging health care professionals to incorporate nature into their treatment. “It makes a difference,” he told the American Heart Association News. “The likelihood of doing what you intend to do goes up when you write it down. And the Rx symbol is universal. It's an easy way for people to relate."  

Glenn might soon prescribe nature herself. She’s currently enrolled in college to be a behavioral technician, meaning soon she might be able to recommend those she treats to spend time outside as well. 

“The outdoors will always be a part of me,” she says. “It’s harder for me to do things like hike—and I have to take a lot of breaks—but I love it and am determined to keep doing it. 

“And I’d like to help others find the joy it brings me,” Glenn adds, “because I think it can be beneficial on a lot of levels for a lot of ailments.”

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.