A prescription to Birch Bay State Park?

Illustration by Doug De Visser.

By Oliver Lazenby

Bellingham family physician Dr. Greg Anderson always tells patients to get more exercise. Though it’s a serious part of his prescription, Anderson suspects not everyone takes it seriously.

“I’d give patients a prescription for a pill and say, ‘Oh, by the way, eat right and exercise too,’” Anderson said. “You verbalize it but there’s no paper with it. That gives it short shrift; the emphasis is on the pill.”

In 2017, Anderson started actually handing out prescriptions for exercise. Patients leave his office with directions to visit a park near their home regularly. Anderson is one of five doctors piloting a program called “Parkscriptions,” which Bellingham nonprofit Recreation Northwest developed to promote the health benefits of getting outside and exercising.

Recreation Northwest hopes to add 40 more Whatcom County health care providers – including general practitioners, health care educators, mental health therapists and physical therapists – to the pilot program in 2018.

“So far the reception is phenomenal,” said April Claxton, program director and Recreation Northwest co-founder. “People are really excited about the concept and want to be a part of the pilot.”

Last year, Recreation Northwest posted an online database of parks throughout Whatcom County at whatcomparkfinder.org. The database is core to the program’s mission of making it easier for doctors to prescribe time in nature.

Anderson and other doctors use it to find a suitable park near their patients’ homes when writing prescriptions. Anderson prints his Parkscriptions off the website and tells his patients how often to visit the park.

For patients, having a piece of paper gives the recommendation to exercise more weight, and the process is quick enough for Anderson that he can fit it into his busy practice, he said.

“There is limited time with a patient and you’re being pulled in many different directions. What do you focus on: smoking cessation, vaccination, exercise?” Anderson said. “As I get used to the Parkscriptions program it becomes more integrated into my practice.”

Recreation Northwest launched the website with help from Park RX America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit with a similar mission.

Whatcomparkfinder.org is useful for anyone looking for a park: it includes 16 parks and green spaces in Blaine and Birch Bay and many more throughout Whatcom County. The site includes parks managed by multiple government agencies. Users can search the parks by feature, filtering for such criteria as dog parks, tennis courts, skate parks, parks with bathrooms and dozens of others.

Doctors piloting the program don’t just hand out Parkscriptions for patients who need more exercise. Time in a natural environment can be beneficial for those with depression, anxiety and many other ailments, research shows.

Exposure to nature is associated with lower blood pressure, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and better blood sugar control for diabetics. Neuroscience studies have shown improved cognitive development in children who spend more time in nature, as well as less anxiety and negative thinking for adults.

“I’d make the argument that, shoot, if you eat right and exercise that will take care of 90 percent of your problems,” Anderson said.

In addition to adding more health care providers to the program this year, Recreation Northwest hopes to add more parkland to the database and track whether patients are following through on their nature prescriptions. They also want to allow doctors to recommend exercise programs or groups that patients can join.

“Whether it’s for safety or accountability a lot of people would prefer that to just going out on their own,” Claxton said. “We’re trying to incorporate some resources into our website.”

The Parkscriptions program is funded through grants and community donations.

Find more information about the program at recreationnorthwest.org/active/parkscriptions.

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