The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial – an historic occasion that will culminate Aug. 25. On that date in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act creating a new bureau within the Department of the Interior that would bear responsibility for protecting the then-35 parks in existence. Today, more than 400 national parks grace the country.

Another milestone occurred on April 24, when U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and a team of healthcare workers joined National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis for the inaugural Park Rx Day. The day promoted the importance of getting out in nature and putting one foot in front of the other.

Nature’s Natural Antidote

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Take a hike! This trail was once walked by Henry David Thoreau and overlooks the Nashua River Valley from Saint Benedict Abbey.  By Benabbey via Wikimedia Commons

“Nature is good for us – it is a great antidote to a variety of ailments, including obesity, heart disease, and depression,” Jarvis said in a press release titled “Doctors Warn that Hiking is Contagious: Park Rx Day Events in 26 States Encourage Everyone to Take a Hike.” “A growing number of public health officials now prescribe time in parks for the overall well-being of their patients. In fact, it is becoming a standard medical practice to tell patients to take a hike.”

Park Rx Day highlighted the National Park Service program Park Rx, or park prescriptions. The program is a collaborative effort involving doctors, nurses and other community partners to use the nation’s greenspaces as a tool for improving health and fighting obesity. Breathing fresh air and admiring beautiful scenery has other benefits, too.

“Psychologically, time spent exercising in nature has been reported to not only reduce stress, and improve attention, but also positively impact mental restoration and coping with attention deficits,” the Park Rx Web site states.

Exercising in nature encourages friendships, socialization and wellness, as well.

“The reason for this is because many activities conducted outdoors – such as walking with others, picnicking, and sitting in a park can be done with one or many individuals,” according to the Park Rx Web site. “As a result, activities such as these can work to strengthen and build both an individual’s and a community’s social networks and bonds.”

Park Rx Day Activities

Activities during Park Rx Day included bicycling, talks, tours, wildlife viewing and yoga, in addition to walking. Hospitals and insurance companies provided special screenings for those interested in checking their status.

Patients are encouraged to talk to their physicians about activities they can do in nearby parks, and physicians equally are encouraged to write a park prescriptions for such things as climbing a tree, following animal tracks or going for a run.

“We know that an average of 22 minutes a day of physical activity – such as brisk walking in a national park – can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes,” Murthy said in the press release. “The key is to get started because even a small first effort can make a big difference in improving the personal health of an individual and the public health of the nation.”

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