Robert Zarr is walking from his Columbia Heights medical practice toward Meridian Hill Park, talking about what’s going on inside his head. If you could see his brain on an MRI, he says, far more extensive regions would be lighting up than if he were having this same conversation sitting at his desk.
Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health Care’s Upper Cardozo Health Center, has a special interest in the unseen benefits of getting outside. He is the “physician champion” of DC Parks Rx, an innovative community health program committed to combating the woes of urban living by prescribing time outdoors.
Zarr mentions obesity, diabetes and mental health disorders as he walks. “It only takes a couple of kids” with symptoms of ADHD to disrupt a classroom, he says, and teachers start recommending their parents talk to pediatricians about Ritalin or other medical interventions.
Hence the D.C. parks prescription program. Convinced by a growing body of scientific evidence that many of the chronic scourges of city life can be prevented or alleviated by reconnecting with nature, Zarr has created an online database of about 350 green spaces in the District, from grassy triangles at the intersection of roads to swaths of Rock Creek Park. Replete with the specific data about access, safety and facilities that physicians need if they are to prescribe a stroll in the park rather than a trip to the pharmacy, it is the first such tool in the country that allows providers to type a patient’s Zip code into their records and retrieve specially tailored summaries and maps. This allows park prescriptions to be integrated into doctors’ workflows and enables Zarr to collect the resulting data.
Zarr is taking on a historically intractable challenge, tackled by John F. Kennedy, who launched the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1963, and first lady Michelle Obama with her five-year-old “Let’s Move” campaign. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health established an entire department in 2005 devoted to research into the effects of behavior on health.
“It not enough to simply suggest to someone that a particular behavior change might be beneficial to their health,” writes David Holtgrave, chair of the Hopkins department, in an e-mail. “It often involves working with individuals, their social networks and the surrounding policy environment to effect that change.” There is “robust literature” showing the benefits of changing the environment, says Keisha Pollack, an associate professor at Hopkins.
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