National Park Service Director Touts Parks' Health Benefits
Amid the twin crises of health care and a tough economy, national parks and protected lands are a largely unrealized source of public health benefits. National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis says, “Being outdoors has positive effects on health that don’t cost a dime.”
Jarvis will share more of those thoughts in a keynote speech Sunday (Oct. 30) in Washington before thousands of public health leaders at the 139th meeting of the American Public Health Association, according to a news release.
National parks have always been loved for their symbolism and scenery, Jarvis said, “but they can also act as medicine and therapy.”
Simply taking an hour-long walk in a natural environment can bring about a drop in blood pressure and heart rate because of the immediate relaxation you experience. And because health care costs are center stage in the debate about the nation’s economy and its future, “When you consider the power of the outdoors and its universal – and free – availability, there’s no health care investment that yields a better return,” Jarvis said.
National parks and all public lands and open space have enormous potential for our good health but we need to move beyond potential, Jarvis said. “The National Park Service is engaged in a wide-ranging effort to bring the outdoors into the public discussion about public health and to expand alternatives for Americans seeking a more active lifestyle, making choices about nutrition or reawakening their relationship with nature.”
National Park Service actions include:
- A pilot program with concessioners in select parks to offer nutritious, locally grown food. It encourages healthy eating habits and sustains the local economy.
- “Park Prescriptions.” Partnerships with local health care providers who actually prescribe a park visit to get patients outside to exercise and get the benefits of sun and fresh air. Three national parks – Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, Indiana Dunes and Golden Gate – are participating so far.
Jarvis said local, regional and state parks are also part of the greater outdoors health resource. The National Park Service, for 45 years, has helped communities develop local places where residents can get physical exercise through its Rivers and Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. “In Little Rock, Ark., we partnered with the city and doctors to establish a trail known as the Medical Mile that offers not only a waterfront view but exhibits and media with a focus on health and exercise.”
The connection of people and nature is at the center of the worldwide Healthy Parks, Healthy People movement. Last spring, the National Park Service hosted the Healthy Parks, Healthy People – US conference to discuss ways to address America’s human and environmental health challenges.
The actions and partnerships Jarvis describes are part of a five-year plan – A Call to Action – to prepare the National Park Service for its second century of stewardship when the bureau turns 100 in 2016. Read the plan at www.nps.gov/CallToAction.
Given the unprecedented challenges we face, the future demands not only a new way of looking at the natural world and our place in it, but an understanding of how our physical well-being is tied to that of the environment.
“Parks are going to be a critical factor in this equation,” Jarvis said. “For the health of the human species and of the global ecosystem that supports us, we need to reach back to what our rural forbears instinctively knew: That we are part of the natural world, that it sustains us in ways that are profound and absolutely essential, that whether we’re aware of it or not, there is a part of us that is always outdoors.”