U of S students help launch nature prescription program

Time in nature is free, has no side effects, and can now be prescribed by Saskatchewan physicians.

'The more time spent in nature, the greater the benefits,' says medical student

Research has shown that 20 minutes per time in nature and at minimum about two hours per week has several health benefits for people, according to medical student Sehjal Bhargava. (Supplied by Colin Chatfield)

Time in nature is free, has no long list of negative side effects, and can now be prescribed by Saskatchewan physicians.

Since Monday, health care professionals in the province can add nature time to their prescription list, thanks to the launch of the nature prescription program PaRx in Saskatchewan.

"What I love about the idea of a nature prescription is that really as long as a patient can have a meaningful experience with nature, that is enough to be able to get those health benefits," said Brooklyn Rawlyk, a medical student from the University of Saskatchewan.

"What really appealed to me is ... being able to break down those barriers of, you know what, you don't need to be physically active, you don't need to go necessarily to an organized park."

Rawlyk and her fellow medical student Sehjal Bhargava helped to launch the program in the province. 

The two friends first met in high school and share a passion for running, wellness and the great outdoors. 

PaRx is Canada's first national nature prescription program and was introduced in British Columbia in 2020 by the BC Parks Foundation.

This spring the Saskatchewan Medical Association (SMA) passed a resolution to support the program which helps licensed healthcare professionals to prescribe doses of nature to their patients, according to the BC Parks Foundation.

Rawlyk first learned about the program on social media, she said.

"We were able to get key stakeholders involved and really bring this to our province," said Rawlyk.

"It was surprisingly taken quite well. I think the best part about this was finding out how many physicians are already informally prescribing nature."

All registered health care professionals in the province can sign up to prescribe nature time, including pharmacists, nurses, physiotherapists or occupational health workers, according to Rawlyk.

"It kind of adds another tool to our toolbox as prescribers," said Bhargava.

A minimum of two hours per week in nature

Conversations between health care professionals and patients are important to determine how much time in nature is meaningful and fits easily into someone's day, according to Bhargava.

"The more time spent in nature, the greater the benefits," she said.

"20 minutes at a time for about two hours a week is what gets you that optimal health benefit of, you know, pain reduction, mental health benefits, blood pressure reduction, reduced cardiovascular risk factors and more."

Besides their professional connection with the health benefits of nature, the two medical students themselves enjoy spending time outside as runners.

"We spend a lot of time outdoors and I've always found myself being more refreshed and feeling mentally better and physically better after being outside," said Bhargava.

"Even in the pandemic, most recently, we find people being outside finding that as a way to reconnect and feel better about themselves."

Hundreds of prescribers nationwide already

Another passion that drives the two students is their engagement with the Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Preserving the environment helps preserve people's health, said Bhargava.

Nature prescription "encourages people to connect with their environment," she said.

"Negative impacts of climate change are negatively going to impact our health and already are."

Besides exercise, nutrition and sleep, the medical student sees nature as the fourth pillar of health.

"I think it's an absolute duty to educate and promote and advocate for a healthier society for our patients and our earth," said Bhargava.

According to the BC Parks Foundation, 800 prescribers have registered with the nature prescription program across Canada.

LISTEN | Bhargava and Rawlyk spoke with Shauna Powers on CBC's Saskatchewan Weekend

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend