Get out! Use a park prescription in the New Year in our Golden Gate National Parks

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Kid jumping against blue sky

Every New Year’s, one of the top resolutions is to get outside and get healthy, but now more than ever, doctors are actually prescribing it.

And we all like resolutions we can keep. So this year, instead of resolving to join another aggressively-crowded gym in January only to give up in a month, why not try a different tactic to achieve your health goals? Try a park prescription.

In San Francisco, we’re lucky enough to live next to the Golden Gate National Parks. At the Institute of the Golden Gate (a program of the Parks Conservancy in partnership with the National Park Service), we’re celebrating the growing park prescription movement by choosing time outside to improve health and well-being.

For over 10 years, the Institute at Golden Gate has led and supported the ParkRx movement, promoting the health benefits of nature with practitioners and park-goers from around the nation. Time magazine recently examined the Institute’s park prescriptions initiative, and how physicians are encouraging patients to get outdoors and take advantage of what many view as free medicine. You can read the Time article here.

A blog post by Betty Sun—program manager with the Institute who oversees health initiatives and explores opportunities at the intersection of parks and health—about our ParkRx program mentions several case studies that further highlight this growing movement of using the outdoors for our health. She also outlines how people are being prescribed outdoors time.

"The Institute has been tracking park prescription programs across the country, and we’ve doubled the number in our ParkRx directory in the last year,” said Sun. “These are programs that gather and steward diverse audiences to our parks, all for the health benefits of nature.”

Public health has been an important aspect of the National Park Service (NPS) since it first started in 1918, as parks are seen as places for respite from cities and pollution, places to connect with nature, and get healthy with outdoor exercise. Health promotion by NPS is covered in an initiative called Healthy Parks Healthy People and especially targets both children and the elderly.

Looking for some motivation to exercise more and be outside in nature? Here are a few tips from recent studies and expanding scientific literature that reinforce the health benefits of exercise and nature:

1.      The Department of Environmental Conservation lists several health benefits of being out in nature: It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases ability to focus even in children with ADHD, accelerates recovery from surgery or illness, increases energy levels, and improves sleep. (Source: Department of Environmental Conservation).

2.      Time spent exercising outside, especially for children and teens, suggest that unstructured outside play can be very helpful for children with attention deficits (ADHD), anxiety, obesity, and depression. In fact, researchers at the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) believe both the effect of green space and nature exposure in combination with physical activity can reduce stress levels in children by almost 28 percent. (Source: NEEF)

3.      Richard Louv in his book “Vitamin N,” offers activities for parents, communities, and schools, encouraging play outside as it ensures burnout from staring at screens. (Source: Richard Louv)

4.      Simply gazing at nature (a tree out your window or a photo of a serene vista) has been linked to an increase in productivity. (Source: Harvard Business Review Green).

Parks and exercise—not just workouts indoors at a gym—may offer the greatest benefit to health according to recent studies as it offers an immediate mental boost. And here at the Golden Gate National Parks, we offer a menu of resources to help everyone get started with their New Year’s resolutions. Check out the Institute’s list of resources to learn more and get started: https://instituteatgoldengate.org/resources

So, what are you waiting for? Start exploring the many national parks in your own backyard right away! https://www.parksconservancy.org/find-your-park

Curran White contributed to this article.

Veda Banerjee is director, communications & digital marketing for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

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