Some Canadian doctors are prescribing nature as a remedy; local experts think Alberta should do the same

The BC Parks Foundation launched PaRx, Canada’s first national nature prescription program, in November 2020.

By Mario Toneguzzi | February 17, 2022 |5:00 am

Luckily for Calgarians, there's no shortage of mountanis and nature an hour from the city in Banff and Canmore.

Photo: Krista Sylvester

Some doctors in Canada are now prescribing access to nature for patients to improve their mental and physical health. 

In some provinces, including BC, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, doctors are prescribing a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which is made available through a partnership between Park Prescriptions (PaRx) and Parks Canada. 

Local experts feel this unique initiative of prescribing access to nature should be adopted in Alberta as well.

Patricia Doyle-Baker, the associate dean graduate in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary, said being active and outdoors has many physical and mental health benefits.

“When we start talking about a nature pill, I can tell you that the evidence is building towards this idea of giving a prescription,” she says, adding there is a growing body of evidence “that is going about this through the right type of scientific studies.” 

Nature is loaded with health benefits 

Doyle-Baker does research in the area of physical activity, the outdoors, and health, and she says there are three benefits of being outside that are clearly evident.

“The first one is that anyone who tends to go outside tends to do more physical activity and that’s a huge benefit in our world of COVID and sedentary sitting,” she explains. 

Secondly, she adds, often when people go outside and conduct their physical activity in nature, there is a “super-charged benefit” that’s associated with the psychological outcomes.

“It’s a fairly complex interaction but the research demonstrates that people tend to have less anxiety, or at least their anxiety levels reduce if they are outside in nature, particularly if they are doing physical activity.”

Doyle-Baker says there is also a decrease in stress hormones. 

“Their level of worry decreases and their confidence and self-esteem increase,” she adds. 

More about Canada’s nature prescription program 

The BC Parks Foundation launched PaRx, Canada’s first national nature prescription program, in November 2020.

In a statement, Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, said he is confident this program will quickly show its enormous value to patients as it expands across the country. 

“We are very lucky in Canada to have a world of beautiful natural spaces at our doorstep to enjoy healthy outdoor activities. Medical research now clearly shows the positive health benefits of connecting with nature,” Guilbeault said in a statement.

“This exciting collaboration with PaRx is a breakthrough for how we treat mental and physical health challenges, and couldn’t come at a better time as we continue to grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily lives.”

Participating prescribers across Canada have the opportunity to prescribe an Adult Parks Canada Discovery Pass to their patients and are asked to prioritize those who live close to national parks, national historic sites, or national marine conservation areas, and who could benefit from it the most.

The link between green space and mental health 

Scott Patten, a psychiatric epidemiologist and professor of psychiatry in community health sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said many studies have shown a positive correlation between the amount of green space close to where people live and their mental health.

“In general, it’s been well-known for several decades that participation in activities that are pleasant, or rewarding, have anti-depressant effects,” Patten explains.

“Therapists will quite often direct people to schedule those sorts of activities as a part of the treatment to depression. There’s also quite a strong literature linking physical activity to mental health.” 

Patten says the psychotherapies that work for depression often include many of these elements but people are different. 

A potent positive force in the lives of many 

For example in a therapy called behavioural activation, the therapist will typically try to get people to get more routine and structure in their day-to-day life and to get reconnected with hobbies and activities that they enjoyed before.

“The logic behind that is that when people are depressed, in particular, they’re tired, they don’t enjoy things. It’s hard for them to get motivated. Typically over time, their lifestyle will become more withdrawn, inactive,” Patten says, adding that leads to loss of opportunities for physical activity, social support, and physical conditioning. 

Returning to activity, and activity outdoors, can become a potent positive force in people’s recovery and prescribing activity in the outdoors could be part of a strategy for many people, he adds. 

“So just by helping people out of that pattern helps a lot with their depression.”

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Mario Toneguzzi

Mario Toneguzzi is a contributor with Calgary Citizen.

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