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Pilot project in Holland aims to help get people outside using nature prescriptions

Ottawa County Parks, along with the City of Holland, Holland Charter Township, Park Township, Laketown Township, and the Outdoor Discovery Center are partnering with a non-profit organization, Park Rx America, and the Holland Hospital Physical Hospital Organization (PHO) to bring nature prescriptions to patients. Leading this pilot project is Dr. Beth Peter MD whose background is in family medicine.   

“Go get some fresh air” is advice that’s been given for years. Intuitively, many people know that fresh air and sunshine can make you feel better, but in the past there hasn’t been much science to back that up. That is changing.

A number of recent evidentiary studies are uncovering the science behind the healing power of nature. Researchers are finding that time spent outdoors can have many positive, measurable outcomes such as: reduced stress, improved sleep, lower blood pressure, and increased social connectedness. A full list of findings can be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5744722/.

At the same time humans are spending more time inside and in front of screens and other studies beg the question: Why is our culture so stressed?

“What those researchers are finding is that we were designed to be healthier, to exercise more and to eat more plants,” says Dr. Peter. “Our brains are developed for sunshine and fresh air.”

Park Rx America is a platform physicians can use to get their patients outdoors more often and create healthier habits. It contains a database of area parks that includes information to help doctors prescribe a park that will be the right fit for a patient. “Park Rx America will be helpful to patients and doctors because we don’t always know what’s out there,” said Dr. Peter. “It can also help answer important questions like ‘are there accessible pathways and bathrooms’? Or, ‘are dogs allowed?’”

Once doctors find the right park, they can create a prescription for their patient. Individuals will receive text reminders to visit their prescribed park and are able to check in when they arrive. They can also opt-in to answer questions about how they are feeling after their time outside. After the initial prescription is filled, the hope is that people keep coming back and perhaps begin to explore new places.

“The PHO is always searching for resources we can give our physicians to help them motivate their patients to make important habit changes so they are healthier, feel better, and are less stressed,” said Dr. Peter. “Park Rx America is one we’re really excited about.”

Changing habits is an important first step to a healthier community. “We recognize that prevention is less expensive than treatment later with medicines and surgeries. Doctors will still use medicine and surgeries, but we are being intentional about thinking of the whole person,” said Dr. Peter. “Part of that challenge for me as a healthcare provider is figuring out what that motivation is. ‘Is it the Outdoor Discovery Center’s Nature Passport? Is it the Step it Up! program? Do they need a social component or is the motivator something they can do with their grandkids?’”

Getting outside more often isn’t just important to adults. “Kids in our communities are feeling more anxious and showing physical signs of anxiety – they have trouble sleeping,” said Dr. Peter. “There are often a lot of factors in that, but it’s great to take our children outside to see how that affects their stress level. Especially when funding and time for physical education and recess is shrinking.”

Park officials welcome the new research. “Science-based studies bring more people to the table,” said Ottawa County Parks spokesperson, Jessica VanGinhoven. “We always hear stories about how people use parks to lose weight, to de-stress, or heal and cope with traumatic events, but there aren’t many medical professionals in our field. To have your doctor or counselor tell you that getting outside will make you feel better carries more weight.”

It also opens the door to partnerships. The Surgeon General’s ‘Step it Up’ report on walking for health in 2016 is what spurred the Ottawa County Department of Public Health and Parks’ to create the Step it Up Walking program in Ottawa and Allegan Counties. “That program helped connect us to so many new park users – people who just weren’t sure about getting their exercise outdoors for fear of getting lost or being alone on the trail. After meeting other walkers and participating in a guided hike, people are more confident in tackling a new trail and we believe the community is happier and healthier for it,” said VanGinhoven.

Holland-area doctors using the Park Rx America platform have over 80 local parks, open spaces, and trails available to prescribe to their patients. Staff from Ottawa County Parks, City of Holland, Holland Charter Township, Park Township, Laketown Township, and the Outdoor Discovery Center have all entered their property information with the hope that they’ll see more park visitors.

“It is important to Holland Charter Township Parks & Recreation Departments to be a part of the Parks RX America project because the overall health, wellness, exercise and well-being of our citizens is very important,” said Amanda Klomparens from Holland Township Recreation. “Our six different parks offer a vast variety of amenities for people of all ages.”