State Parks a Prescription for Better Health

Over many years in medical practice, outdoor physical activity was often one of the most important and effective forms of therapy

By Dr. Aaron Wernham

Health and wellbeing are directly linked to physical activity and time outdoors. Over many years in medical practice, I found that for illnesses ranging from diabetes to depression, outdoor physical activity was often one of the most important and effective forms of therapy.

Health care providers know this, and more and more providers are prescribing outdoor exercise as a recipe for better health. Parks RX, or “prescription parks” programs are gaining in popularity and effectiveness, getting more people outside to enjoy their parks and local trail systems. The program is a collaboration of medical providers and healthcare professionals to engage more patients in increasing physical activity to combat obesity and other health conditions.

Parks RX is a national movement but here in the Big Sky State, Montana State Parks is a rising partner in prescription park programs. Thanks to this collaboration, medical providers are able to prescribe an exercise regimen for patients that takes full advantage of our amazing state parks, which are a natural fit for the program. These front-country, easily accessible areas provide space for families to recreate and connect in nature; whether hiking a nature trail, paddle boarding a water trail, or mountain biking singletrack, Montana State Parks are the perfect venue to stay active.

But just as state parks can help Montana citizens stay healthy and active, Montanans need to give back to make sure state parks are also healthy and well-managed. That’s why I serve on the citizen-led Parks in Focus Commission. We’ve been directed to identify the barriers holding back parks and to bring forward solutions and recommendations to fix these critical issues. We spent the last twelve months diagnosing the “patient,” and we are now finalizing recommendations for the better health of our state parks system.

We spent this past year visiting parks and communities around the state; when we released draft recommendations earlier this fall we received and synthesized more than 150 public comments along with extensive input from Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff. The commission’s final report emerges from this robust public process with a prescription to break the cycle that has plagued state parks and build the foundation for success. Our report makes clear that we have much work to do to secure the future state parks system Montanans deserve, and that work must start today.

The commission recognizes that there is no silver bullet, and that it will take short-term realism and long-term dedication from both leaders within the system and engaged park champions to build a healthier future for our state parks. We are encouraged by the changes already underway, and have confidence that Montanans will find ways to support Parks’ long-term success.

The Parks in Focus Commission’s fourth and final meeting is being held at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park on Dec. 13-14. We invite all Montanans to join us in commemorating this effort and a historic step forward for our Montana State Parks. Commissioners will discuss and approve final recommendations at this meeting.

Learn more at www.chartinganewtomorrow.com/parks-in-focus.

Dr. Aaron Wernham is a family physician and CEO of the Montana Healthcare Foundation.