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Canadian Medical Association endorses B.C. Parks plan to prescribe nature

Nature is the ‘fourth pillar of health, just as important as healthy diet, exercise and lifestyle,’ says Dr. Melissa Lem, director of the national nature prescription program called PaRX.
Leaves create a colourful display Esquimalt Gorge Park on Nov. 1, 2022. Spending time in nature can be beneficial to your health, experts say. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

From the climate crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, to inflation woes and the invasion of Ukraine, there’s a lot to be stressed out about these days.

But instead of taking medication for low levels of anxiety, your health care provider may soon prescribe spending more time in nature.

On Saturday, at the COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal, the Canadian Medical Association officially endorsed a B.C. Parks initiative called PaRx, a national nature prescription program. It’s the first time a national medical organization in the world has endorsed a nature prescription.

“Spending time in nature is something that we can all benefit from, physicians and patients alike. The CMA is proud to endorse a nature therapy program that connects us to the land and all of the evidence-based outcomes it provides,” said Dr. Alika Lafontaine, president of the CMA, in a statement Saturday.

Dr. Melissa Lem, a B.C.-based family physician and director of PaRx, said the CMA endorsement will help normalize the idea within the medical profession that nature is essential for good health.

What they will typically recommend is at least two hours a week outside, for at least 20 minutes at a time. That could mean going for a hike in the woods, but it could also be something as simple as visiting a local park, gardening, or taking a walk by the sea.

Lem said there is a standardized prescription form that health care providers can fill out as they work with patients to come up with a personalized plan. “There’s research that shows that when the information is written down it increases a patient’s motivation to carry out that advice,” she said.

Lem said the CMA endorsement is significant because it is the first of its kind in the world and aligns with the association’s goal of improving health and increasing environmental stewardship.

Research shows children and adults who are more connected to nature are not only more likely to work to conserve it, but also to engage in other pro-environmental behaviour, she said.

The B.C. Parks Foundation launched PaRx in November 2020. More than 10,000 prescribers across Canada have now registered, according to the foundation.

PaRx has already been endorsed by major provincial health partners such as B.C. Family Doctors, Alberta Medical Association, Ontario College of Family Physicians and Collège des médecins du Québec.

Lem said while the majority of nature prescriptions are for mental health, there are many other conditions that can benefit from taking time out in nature, such as high blood pressure, poor sleep and cardiovascular disease.

She stressed that a nature prescription is not something that would be given instead of medication, especially for chronic illness, but it could be a starting point.

“We call nature the fourth pillar of health, just as important as healthy diet, exercise and lifestyle,” Lem said.

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