USA TODAY US Edition
Programhas doctors giving out ‘nature prescriptions’
Federal parks join efforts to getU.S. healthy, outside
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.
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.
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.