For Many of Us

living in the COVID-19 era, nature has been a therapeutic godsend. But while we have an intuitive understanding of the benefits of being outdoors, science and western medicine are now validating the practice, recommending time spent in nature as part of wellness plans.

ParkRx, a project run by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with support from the National Park Service, is encouraging health care providers around the United States to "prescribe" their patients time in nature. Minnesota boasts two ParkRx pilot programs, including PowerUp, a partnership between HealthPartners and state and local parks in the St. Croix River Valley. Through trail and activity guides, and involvement by primary care practitioners, PowerUp educates families about the positive health effects of exploring green spaces.

The notion of a doctor "prescribing" a park visit might seem silly, but new research shows that time spent outside is associated with lower stress levels and improved mental health, and it may even improve cognitive performance. It turns out there's scientific proof to support the warm, fuzzy feelings you get from that walk in the woods.

"There's no question there's tons of literature on the impact of nature and natural elements on health," says Dr. Brent Bauer, the research director for the Mayo Clinic Integrative Medicine Program. "Time and again, we see that children exposed to nature learn faster, and people in hospital settings get out faster when they're in rooms that feature visible nature and more sunlight."

In addition to its involvement with programs like PowerUp, ParkRx encourages health care pros to locate a park in a patient's community and suggest an outing—a 30-minute prairie walk, for example.

"This idea of ParkRx started as a conversation between health care providers and park agency leaders around how parks could be more of a driver for community health," says Diane Mailey, director of The Institute at the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

In Minnesota, the program is in its infancy, but those who work on it see its potential, including Arielle Courtney, a partnership consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails division. Courtney coordinates state park involvement with ParkRx. "ParkRx as a concept is really valuable," she says. "On a big-picture scale, I'd like to see Minnesotans and people in general viewing public lands and parks and trails as places to be well and healthy."

Quinton Skinner , freelance writer