Why your next prescription might be to get outdoors

Why your next prescription might be to get outdoors

When it comes to staying healthy, one of the best treatments might be not something at the pharmacy. It might be as simple as getting outside.

More doctors are now prescribing nature and the great outdoors to their patients.

The Appalachian Mountain Club has created Outdoors Rx. It sponsors a range of programs that encourage people to spend more time outside.

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"This is really preventative medicine," says Angel Santos-Burres, the director of Outdoors Rx in Boston.

"We know by being outside just five minutes in nature, it lowers your heart rate.  It lowers your cortisol production which is your stress hormone, and it lowers your blood pressure,” said Santos-Burres.  “It’s not like we are saying you have to spend a week climbing Mt. Everest.”

This trend is called the Prescription Outdoors Movement.  Santos-Burres says in 2016 there were five programs like Outdoors Rx across the country.  Today there are more than 70.

It is also catching on overseas.  In Scotland, doctors are prescribing outdoor time.  There is even a calendar provided to patients which suggests specific outdoor activities for each month of the year.

In Boston, doctors at the Codman Square Health Center are now writing non-medicinal prescriptions in a trial program called “Dot Rx” which is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.

Lucy Darragh is one of the program’s administrators and says the program is unique because it links a health plan with health centers and local non-profits that support healthy living objectives, like Outdoors Rx.

Dorchester area families with a child under 18 are able to get a prescription for free gym passes and discounts on fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re eligible even if they don’t belong to Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Doctor Erica Mintzer has been prescribing Dot Rx.  “Patients who are really able to commit to a regular exercise regimen and eat more healthily, I do notice that they do feel better physically, and that their mood has improved, and it can impact their blood pressure.

Dot Rx participants also get a peer coach.  This is someone who has committed to a healthier lifestyle and is more available than the patient’s physician.

Kourtney Garraway, a Dot Rx participant, met with her new peer coach as she got a tour of the Dorchester YMCA.    “Diabetes runs in my family,” explained the 29-year administrative assistant.  “I took a couple of tests and I was at risk.  I have a daughter and I need to be a good influence for her.”

Dot Rx has been running for a year and a half now.  Currently, about 350 families have signed up.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is analyzing data on participants and will consider how the program might be replicated in other parts of the state.