Pro­gramhas doc­tors giv­ing out ‘na­ture pre­scrip­tions’

Fed­eral parks join ef­forts to getU.S. healthy, out­side

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Cathy Lynn Gross­man USA TO­DAY Con­tribut­ing: Marisol Bello

Pro­ject links health care providers with parks to fight obe­sity by steer­ing fam­i­lies out­doors.

Here’s what Ma­tias Ro­jas Perez first sawon a trail walk in theMoapa Val­ley Na­tional Wildlife Refuge: awild rab­bit dash­ing past, a 3-inch­long en­dan­gered fish, soar­ing birds and creep­ing snakes.

Here’s what his doc­tors saw: a chance for 200-pound, 5-foot-3, 10-year-old Ma­tias to grow health­ier.

In­stead of an or­der for pills, pe­di­a­tri­cians at the Chil­dren’s Heart Cen­ter in Las Ve­gas have givenMa­tias, his mother, who is di­a­betic, and his 9-year-old, 136-pound lit­tle brother, a “na­ture pre­scrip­tion.”

More than 100 of the 553 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuges such as Moapa are part of a na­tional con­sor­tium of fed­eral parks and the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion Foun­da­tion now us­ing this pre­scrip­tion tac­tic. It’s funded by a $75,000 grant to im­prove fam­ily health through a two-year pilot pro­ject link­ing the fed­eral agen­cies with health care providers. The aim is to turn doc­tors, nurses, teach­ers and ther­a­pists into “na­ture cham­pi­ons” who steer chil­dren and their par­ents into the out­doors.

It’s a whole lot more than just say­ing, “take a hike.”

The pre­scrip­tion, an “Rx for healthy liv­ing,” prompts fam­i­lies to eat more fruits and veg­eta­bles, step away from the TV or video screen and go out­side to breathe fresh air, awaken their senses, and shed some weight.

Us­ing the pre­scrip­tion for­mat gives the psy­cho­log­i­cal oomph of doc­tor’s or­ders to sim­ple sug­ges­tions for diet and work­outs dis­guised as na­ture walks. Each pre­scrip­tion comes with easy-to­fol­low maps to nearby refuges and parks where out­door ex­pe­ri­ences are led by rangers and vol­un­teers.

‘Phe­nom­e­nal dif­fer­ence’

Ma­tias, once un­will­ing to play out­side, has al­ready lost 10 pounds since join­ing the fledg­ling pro­gram this win­ter, says his­mother, Ma De Lour­dez Perez Mata, 44. He now looks for­ward to the walks — and so does she.

Perez Mata says, “It’s so beau­ti­ful, and you learn about na­ture. It’s been so long that I breathed fresh air and so long since I’ve hiked and been sur­rounded by na­ture. The rangers tell you about life in these places, their his­tory. It’s very in­ter­est­ing.”

Since De­cem­ber, the Chil­dren’s Heart Cen­ter in Las Ve­gas, has al­ready or­ga­nized three field trips to nearby desert refuges with about 100 par­tic­i­pants such as Ma­tias and his fam­ily, says An­gelina Yost, visi­tor ser­vices­man­ager for the Desert Na­tional Wildlife Refuge Com­plex, which in­cludesMoap­a.

They hiked up a lit­tle hill “that def­i­nitely gets your heart rac­ing” and vis­ited a view­ing cham­ber carved into the desert floor that let them get face-to-fin with an en­dan­gered fish, the Moapa Dace, Yost says.

The ini­tia­tive be­gan last Septem­ber with a na­tional train­ing pro­gram where nearly three dozen health pro­fes­sion­als from 11 states met at the Na­tional Con­ser­va­tion Train­ing Cen­ter in West Vir­ginia, to be schooled in the value of na­ture pre­scrip­tions.

Dubbed “na­ture cham­pi­ons,” they were charged to each train 30 more ad­vo­cates. One was pe­di­a­tri­cian Noah Kohn, med­i­cal di­rec­tor for Clin­ics in Schools, the freemed­i­cal clin­ics funded by pri­vate donors and the Unit­ed­Way of South­ern Ne­vada. He sees this as a smart new tool to com­bat com­plex prob­lems:

“We have a very sig­nif­i­cant obe­sity prob­lem. Ninety per­cent of my pa­tients have no health in­surance. These are low­in­come fam­i­lieswith few re­sources. It’s hard enough to con­vince them to eat a veg­etable. And they don’t live in neigh­bor­hoods where there is a safe place to go out and play.

“A pre­scrip­tion makes a phe­nom­e­nal dif­fer­ence. It says, ‘Rx for healthy and ac­tive out­door liv­ing.’ Once you get kids out­doors, away from the in­ner city, they are just com­pletely bam­boo­zled by the science and the nat­u­ral world and they never think they are ex­er­cis­ing,” says Kohn, who will start send­ing out pre­scrip­tions as soon at the Span­ish trans­la­tions are avail­able.

Mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits

Su­sanMorse, a spokes­woman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, says each re­gion is tak­ing its own ap­proach to the pre­scrip­tion pro­gram.

In Santa Clara, Calif, Kaiser Per­ma­nente clinic pe­di­a­tri­cian Charles Owyang has al­ready writ­ten 67 pre­scrip­tions to the Don Ed­wards Pre­serve, an ur­ban na­ture en­clave in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area. Owyang also teaches other doc­tors about stud­ies that show out­door ac­tiv­i­ties have in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional ben­e­fits, too — bright­en­ing kids’ moods, sharp­en­ing their con­cen­tra­tion and cut­ting down on stress.

In New Jer­sey, a na­ture cham­pion con­nected health care provider At­lantiCare with a net­work of home school­ing par­ents to be­gin form­ing “Fam­ily Na­ture Clubs” that meet ev­ery sec­ond Satur­day for a walk in the Ed­win B. Forsythe Na­tional Wildlife Refuge that weaves ex­er­cise and ed­u­ca­tion.

“The days when Mom could send you out the front door to play have changed,” says Sandy Perchetti, vol­un­teer co­or­di­na­tor, at Forsythe, 15 min­utes from At­lantic City.

“Once the chil­dren come with their ‘pre­scrip­tions’ we stamp them and give them an in­cen­tive like a na­ture jour­nal or a pe­dome­ter to track their walk­ing,” says Perchetti.

The na­tional pro­ject in­cludes track­ing whether fam­i­lies visit the refuges and parks, their phys­i­cal progress and whether they came back again.

The an­swer is in for Ma­tias and his fam­ily. They’ve al­ready been back to Moapa.

Pho­tos by Kris­ten Bourque

Nat­u­ral ap­proach: Fam­i­lies hike in­Moapa Val­ley Na­tion­alWildlife Refuge dur­ing a Jan. 29 trip or­ga­nized by the Chil­dren’s Heart Cen­ter.

Out­side Las Ve­gas: Park vol­un­teer Bruce Lund, left, join­sMa­tias Ro­jas Perez, right, and his mother, Ma De Lour­dez PerezMata, and Jazmine Tor­rez-Romero.

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