Head Out for a Daily Dose of Green Space

January 24, 2011, 11:24 am

First, the bad news: Americans are suffering from an acute case of “outdoor deprivation disorder,” and the effects on physical and mental health are rising fast. Children aged 8 to 18 today spend more time than ever using electronic media indoors — seven and a half hours a day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation — and less time in outdoor unstructured activity. In response to the No Child Left Behind law, 30 percent of kindergarten classrooms have eliminated recess to make more room for academics.

The resulting lack of physical activity and a growing disconnect with the natural environment have been linked in a host of studies to obesity and obesity-related diseases in children and adults, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, as well as vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, stress, depression, attention deficit disorder and myopia. Dr. Daphne Miller, a family physician affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco, calls them “diseases of indoor living.”

Now, the good news: There’s a simple remedy — get outside and start moving around in green spaces near and far, most of which are free. A consortium of physicians, health insurers, naturalists and government agencies have banded together to help more people of all ages and economic strata engage in health-enhancing physical activity in parks and other natural environments.

This grass-roots movement has already reached the White House. This year President Obama started the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, proclaiming June “Great Outdoors Month.” The initiative aims not just to counter sedentary lifestyles but also to reacquaint Americans with the farms, ranches, rivers, forests, national and local parks, fishing holes and beaches that provide opportunities for people “to stay active and healthy.”

The goals dovetail with Michelle Obama’s battle against childhood obesity and her initiative Let’s Move Outside, a program that’s part of her Let’s Move campaign. Dr. Miller said that the aim was to “turn our public lands into public health resources. Doctors around the country are beginning to realize that getting patients out of doors has benefits even beyond getting people to exercise.

“It’s a lot cheaper to go outside and move than it is to build gyms and a lot of hospitals,” she said.

Doctor’s Orders: Be Active

Accordingly, Dr. Miller and a growing number of like-minded doctors have begun writing specific prescriptions for outdoor activity, providing patients with maps, guidelines and programs of gradually increased activity based on their abilities. She said that such prescriptions are necessary because many people “are unfamiliar with the outdoors — they’re scared to walk through a park, and they don’t know what to do when they get there.”

Among possible sources of help: volunteer health guides in parks who can tell people where to go and what to do and park rangers who are trained to advise people who may have health issues. “Our parks provide a huge opportunity,” Dr. Miller said. “Currently, fewer than 40 percent of visitors use them for any form of exercise.”

‘Park Prescriptions’

The National Park Service, too, has joined the “park prescriptions” campaign, offering free wellness services that are accessible to all, regardless of health status. (I was shocked to learn on a recent visit to Grand Canyon National Park that, despite many well-maintained trails, only 5 percent of visitors ever venture below the rim of the canyon; about half the people I encountered on the trails were from other countries.)

The park service helped Dr. Eleanor Kennedy, a cardiologist in Little Rock, Ark., create a downtown “Medical Mile,” a section of the Arkansas River Trail, and now hopes to support access to similar open spaces in communities nationwide. Dr. Kennedy reports that once she gets her patients outdoors “they are more likely to be consistent about exercise.” The Medical Mile project, which had an initial goal of $350,000, managed to raise $2.1 million in two years.

Read more at nytimes.com.