Should Doctors Prescribe Outdoor Activity?

Did you know there’s a movement out there that’s researching and encouraging outdoor activity and nature as treatment for disease, instead of prescription drugs?

"outdoor rx" with image of two people at the base of a waterfall

It’s a thing. A growing thing.

Some call is Outdoor RX. Exploring the use of nature and outdoor activity as prescription alternatives to medical drugs.

When you think about it, in the old days this was pretty common. Those who could afford it would leave the city and go to the seaside or the mountains to recuperate. The fresh air, relaxation and outdoor activity would do wonders.

Then the discovery of penicillin and development of all kinds of synthetic medications—and the rise of the multi-trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry—have made us modern folks forget the remedies God built into the natural world.

woman overlooking river and canyon
Activity and nature’s beauty restore the body and the soul (Big Horn Canyon, Montana)

But nature and outdoor activity as a means of healing is back in style. At least it’s starting to be.

Here are a few articles and resources:

“10 Health Problems that the Outdoors can help Prevent and Treat”

This article on goes into extensive detail about ten common health issues the outdoors can help prevent or treat:

  1. Obesity and obesity-related problems like diabetes, cancer and cardio diseases. All of these are known risks of a sedentary lifestyle—and studies show people who spend time outdoors are more active than people who don’t.
  2. High blood pressure—not just more activity, but nature itself helps lower blood pressure.
  3. Mental health issues like depression, anxiety and stress are also known to be reduced by exposure to nature.
  4. Osteoporosis and osteopenia are a weakening of the bones that can be prevented by both weight-bearing activity and plenty of Vitamin D, which the sun gives us naturally.
  5. Nearsightedness—the article refers to a study done with Chinese school children who spent more time outdoors than others (which includes less time in front of screens). They had fewer cases of nearsightedness. Interesting!
  6. Dementia
  7. Asthma and other lung diseases can be helped by more exposure to clean, fresh air found in (non-polluted) outdoor spaces.
  8. Pain and injuries—the article calls it a “massive physical therapy clinic.” Outdoor activity naturally works our whole body in ways that help us increase strength, balance and stamina.
  9. Addictions—Not only can outdoor activity and nature help people recover from addictions, it can help keep people from forming harmful addictive behaviors.
kayaking on the st croix river Wisconsin
Outside activity invites a healthier, slower pace of life (St. Croix River at the Wisconsin/Minnesota border)

“Science’s Newest Miracle Drug is Free”

Brought to you from Outside magazine online, here’s a quote from the article by pediatrician, Dr. Robert Zarr:

“In a world where we increasingly live our lives indoors, we are starting to think about nature not just as a place to recreate, but also as a social determinant of health.” ~ Dr. Robert Zarr

According to the article, the nature-as-prescription movement has exploded, although I personally hear very little about it in my world—except when I specifically look for it.

And, of course, the word “newest” in the title is intentional irony, since the article acknowledges that outdoor activity has been prescribed by physicians in various cultures for several thousand years.mBut for our generation, the idea is pretty revolutionary.

“A doctor’s recommendation can matter a good deal. Meta-analyses of multiple studies suggest that, for example, you’re almost four times more likely to attempt to lose weight if your doctor suggests it…Providers can motivate people to change their behavior.”

Lake Superior along Wisconsin's Apostle Islands Nat'l Seashore
How can beauty like this NOT be healing?! (Lake Superior, Wisconin)

“Natural Medicine: More Doctors Prescribing Time Outdoors”

This article also cites Dr. Zarr, saying he writes out a couple prescriptions for his patients each day for outdoor activity instead of prescription drugs.

It also refers to a law passed a year ago in the UK, specifically in the Shetland Islands, allowing doctors to prescribe outdoor activity as an alternative to drugs.

It also mentions a trend you may have heard of, called forest bathing. Popularized in Japan, forest bathing practices can get a little woo-woo, depending on who you follow.

But there truly are chemicals trees produce—phytoncides—that benefit humans, especially our immune system. Doesn’t that sound like something the Lord would design into creation?

(No wonder I love trees so much!)

America’s National Park Service & Park RX

Here in the US, the National Park Service released this video in 2014, Park Prescriptions:

The NPS and other government agencies created Park RX to help educate us on the benefits of being active outside.

Here’s a shareable graphic by Park RX:

Park RX graphic showing benefits of outdoor activity for disease
(© Park RX)

So, should doctors prescribe outdoor activity and nature for both preventative and disease treatment?


Here’s more…

Sharon Brodin