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D.C. Doctors Prescribe Parks for Good Health


A new pilot project in Washington, D.C., is aiming to find out whether prescribing time outdoors in the city’s green spaces can be beneficial to people’s health, especially youngsters struggling with their weight.

But rather than merely lecturing people to spend more time outside, the doctors involved in the project are providing useful information about the parks, trails and open spaces available to patients, part of a dual effort to get folks moving outside and promote the city’s many green spaces.

“There’s a lot of data that’s building, affirming our thoughts that being outside is good for a lot of reasons, from Vitamin D to happiness to your physical health,” explains Dr. Robert Zarr, the physician overseeing the DC Parks Prescription Rating Tool effort. “The feeling that we’re getting from patients about it is that it’s sort of a breath of fresh air, no pun intended.”

Thus far, Zarr and his colleagues at the American Academy of Pediatrics D.C. Chapter have identified about 350 unique green spaces in the city. They’ve also gathered detailed information about the spaces, which they give to doctors to then give to patients.

The team doesn’t just search the Internet for their info, either. Volunteers take time to actually visit the sites, gathering details on everything from whether the space allows pets, to whether or not lights are on at night, to what amenities are available, including restrooms, drinking fountains, sports fields, playground equipment, swimming pools, tracks and even hiking trails.

Doctors at four health clinics in the city then give that information to patients in easy-to-read documents, typically during a well-child visit or a visit specifically held to discuss a patient’s weight. Doctors specifically provide information about green spaces that are located close to where their patients live or to which they can easily commute via public transit.

“They have a pretty good concrete tool that they can use,” Zarr says. “Rather than, ‘Oh, I see you’re a little overweight, can you try going outside for 20 minutes?”

Thus far, about 60 families have taken part in the pilot project. In upcoming weeks, doctors will follow-up to see whether there was any change in patient behavior and attitude about physical activity, especially being in parks.

The overall goal is to determine whether patient patterns change, and how much providing doctors with concrete information about parks can affect patient behavior. The team plans to have results from the pilot by mid-November, Zarr says.

“The overlaying theme is that we’ve got a unique population that is suffering from a lot of issues with chronic disease, both children and adults,” Zarr says. “We have a lot of reasons to do this, and on top of that we have a massive amount of green space in D.C., which from what the parks tell us, is underutilized.”

Patient reaction thus far has been positive, Zarr says. Doctors report that roughly nine out of 10 patients have positive feedback, surprising even some of the physicians.

The idea to “prescribe parks” isn’t new; the National Environmental Education Foundation long has worked with the Forest Service on a similar effort. But this project takes it a step further, providing uber-local information for doctors to use in the neighborhoods they serve.

Zarr himself is leading the project’s promotional efforts. A few weeks ago, Zarr appeared at an event sponsored by the National Parks Service, where he wrote a DC Parks Prescription for 30 students from a local elementary school. Zarr then joined parks officials and the students on a hike through D.C.’s Rock Creek Park.

It was a win-win, Zarr notes. Children took part in an activity that is good for their health, while some of the city’s beautiful open spaces were introduced to a new generation of young people.

“We’re not creating trails, we’re not creating parks. We’re creating a tool that people can use,” Zarr says. “It’s sort of, to me, a bigger movement of people taking back their communities, becoming involved, or in some case creating communities that don’t exist anymore.”