According to countless studies, getting outside in nature has a positive effect on our mental health. Research shows that kids and adults who spend more time in nature are happier and healthier.
Ontario’s new stay-at-home order, as declared under the provincewide shutdown in response COVID-19, does not seem to support the benefits of time spent in the outdoors. Or does it?
Premier Doug Ford has said that people will still be allowed to go outside for essential purposes, including if they need to walk their dog or "walk around the block" for exercise.
In fact, many outdoor recreation facilities and activities are still allowed to be open under the new shutdown order. Parks, trails, ice rinks, skating, snowshoeing, toboggan hills and cross-country skiing are among the outdoor “amenities” listed as permissible.
So this would seem like the government supports us getting outside for exercise in more ways than simply going for a walk around the block. What isn’t exactly clear are the rules around getting to and accessing these outdoor activities.
The stay-at-home order requires everyone to “remain at home, with the exception of essential purposes, such as going to the grocery story, pharmacy, accessing health-care services, exercising, or essential work.”
What if we had a prescription from a health-care professional to spend two hours a week on a local snowshoe trail, or on a nearby skating rink? There would be no question that the activity is essential.
This is not as far-fetched as it seems. Thanks to a new initiative of the B.C. Parks Foundation and a group or health-care professionals who want to improve their patients’ health by connecting them to nature, this is happening for the first time in Canada.
Described on its website as “Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program,” PaRx was launched in December 2020 and formally recognizes the powerful health benefits of nature. The program is backed by hundreds of studies that suggest connecting to nature is one of the best things you can do to improve your health.
Through the PaRx program, licensed health-care professionals can prescribe nature in the same way they recommend other aspects of a patient’s health-care plan.
Evidence-based recommendations and resources are provided, along with a website to log prescriptions. Outdoor activity choice is generally up to the patient, but based on science, the recommended length of time for significant benefits is 20 to 30 minutes per outing, with at least two hours total per week.
PaRx founders say there is a huge enthusiasm for the program and that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for nature prescriptions.
Locally, we have seen the popularity of outdoor recreation over the past few months. With indoor recreation limited, we are all looking for other opportunities to have fun and get exercise, whether with our families, friends, or on our own.
A recent social media post by The Couchiching Conservancy reported, “an influx in trail users at Grants’ Woods and some other nature reserves.” While saying they were extremely happy to see people out exploring local reserves, the post also included a reminder about the “nature” of the areas and the importance of respecting and protecting the local habitats.
The protection of nature and the environment is also seen as a benefit of the PaRx program. Organizers recognize that the more people are connected to nature, the more likely they are to protect it.
This sounds like a win-win situation to me. By prescribing nature, the individual becomes healthier and happier, while being inspired to protect the planet.
Meanwhile in Ontario, we can follow our own nature prescriptions – in our many outdoor parks and trails – as long as we limit our numbers to five, remain distanced, and bring along a mask, I believe.