More than 74 million people in the U.S. are considered medically obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the healthcare system is working with national public lands departments on a new treatment for the obesity epidemic: park prescriptions. Forty percent of Americans are sedentary, including children, and this, combined with poor diet, has been established as the main cause of a nation that is overweight and unhealthy. The Park Prescriptions program is a national movement to get people to be more active and take advantage of underused parks and public lands.
In collaboration with the CDC, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is partnering with the medical community in projects across the country with the goal of getting people into parks and away from their computers, televisions and couches. A study reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that fewer than 14 percent of primary care providers give their patients any regular counseling on exercise, despite evidence that physical activity reduced chronic disease, obesity and stress. The cost of America’s unhealthy lifestyle is borne by the healthcare system, an estimated $150 billion dollars annually, 10 percent of the nation’s medical costs and $8,000 per person per year directly related to obesity.
As part of the Park Prescriptions program databases of parks are being developed in many communities across the country, and physicians are using prescription pads to order exercise treatment instead of medication for their obese patients. Dr. Robert Zarr is a Washington D.C. pediatrician who has developed a comprehensive database that so far includes 380 area parks. The parks are rated and mapped based on their facilities and locations, searchable by zip code. He even has the database linked to his electronic medical record system.
Other Park Prescriptions projects are developing around the country, although none have reached alevel of detail as Zarr’s map database, which he created with help from volunteers from the George Washington University’s School of Public Health and the National Park Service, along with other physicians and park rangers. He also had some funding from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Environmental Education Foundation and the National Recreation and Park Association. He eventually wants the database to exist in a smart phone app.
One of the goals of NRPA is to develop Park Prescriptions resources and toolkits, such as special prescription pads that can be used by physicians when they instruct their patients to get out and exercise. Zarr uses pads that say “Rx for Outdoor Activity” and include a schedule slot asking “When and where will you exercise?” Parks nationwide are doing their part as well, by establishing trail ratings and increasing trail head visibility to make it easier for visitors to utilize trails.
Park Prescriptions projects are in line with first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to prevent obesity and national policy priorities from cabinet-level agencies. NRPA has relationships with such medical organizations as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Hospital Association, along with all 50 state parks and recreation associations.
Underuse of the nation’s parks is in part related to changing habits of families, who no longer go camping or on picnics to experience the outdoors, particularly as the country’s environment becomes more urban. By encouraging exercise, the Park Prescriptions program seeks to treat both the obesity epidemic and the country’s waning interest in the outdoors.
By Beth A. Balen
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Recreation and Park Association (Park Prescriptions)
National Park Service
(NRPA and Park Prescriptions)