This Doctor Is Prescribing Outdoor Play to Patients, and It’s Working


How often do your kids get a chance to run around and play outside? According to the National Wildlife Federation, The Centers for Disease Control, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, they recommend that kids and teens get an hour a day of active time in the great outdoors. Spending time in nature benefits our kids both physically and mentally; it stimulates creativity and even strengthens the attention span.

Of course, these days, finding a free hour in our busy schedules is a Herculean task. A few months ago, NPR reported on a study that revealed only 1 in 4 teens actually get that much time outside. There’s homework, after-school clubs and meet-ups. Then, of course, there’s theĀ ever-constant lure of sitting inside in front of a screen, a siren call which even my five-year-old hears. (If I had a nickle for every time he asked when he could play on my phone, I’d be able to pay for his college tuition by now.) Parents may be too busy to make sure their kids get out and about, or unable to arrange time for them to do so. This lack of activity is a contributing factor in the rise in national obesity among our nation’s youth.

Washington, D.C.-based doctor Richard Zarr is taking matters into his own hands: for the sake of his patient’s health, he’s prescribing that they spend active time outside.

In a report on NPR’s Morning Edition, Zarr explained that about 40% of the young people he sees are obese and not physically fit. He realized that just telling them to get exercise wasn’t making a difference, and so he came up with the idea of micro-targeting their physical activity. He learns about their schedule and routine and makes specific recommendations for how and when they can fit in even just a little bit of exercise.

For example, he told one of his 13-year-old patients to walk the last four blocks to school instead of riding them by bus. She did, and ended up dropping pounds, going from obese to just overweight. (She also learned that, despite what she initially thought, walking a few blocks wasn’t a big deal!)

Many of the kids Zarr treats are from low-income backgrounds, and lack access to backyards. With the help of the National Parks Service and volunteers from George Washington University’s School of Public Health, Zarr has mapped 380 parks in and around D.C., and rated them according to safety, facilities, pet-friendliness, and parking availability for cars and bikes. He now prescribes his patients park time and he tells them where they should go based on their interests, schedule, and location.

Some of these parks are not very safe, but he’s optimistic that as more people use them, that will change. The important thing is getting people out there, and if Americans listen to anybody, it’s their doctors. Zarr’s prescriptions motivate kids and parents to visit parks they might have otherwise avoided. He’d like to see his parks database as an app on his patient’s smartphones, where they could input the amount of time they spent outside so that he can better track the effectiveness of their exercise.

It’s important to make sure that your kids are getting time outside to run, jump, laugh, play, and sweat. It’s good for their health and their spirit, and ultimately, it’s good for the Earth too. People who value clean air, wildlife, and trees will be good stewards to the planet. Those experiences start now, when they’re young. Though the wonderful thing about outdoor time is that it makes anyone feel young at heart; it’s rejuvenating and refreshing.

Alright, that’s it for me. I’m turning the screen off and going outside.

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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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