Doctors prescribe walks at Fort Vancouver National Site

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

Published:

 

o What: Park Prescription Program kickoff. Health care providers will discuss health benefits of outdoor exercise and lead a short walk around Fort Vancouver.

o When: 10 a.m. Dec. 6.

o Where: Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.

Some Clark County physicians will soon be writing new prescriptions for their patients.

The new prescriptions aren’t for pills or injections, though. They’re for walks at the Fort Vancouver National Site.

o What: Park Prescription Program kickoff. Health care providers will discuss health benefits of outdoor exercise and lead a short walk around Fort Vancouver.

o When: 10 a.m. Dec. 6.

o Where: Pearson Air Museum, 1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.

“The number of obese patients, patients with heart disease, diabetes — all that improves with just basic exercise,” said Dr. Penny Faires, a physician at the PeaceHealth Medical Group Fisher’s Landing clinic. “Walking is one of the safest and easiest exercises we can do.”

The Park Prescription Program, a partnership between the National Park Service and area physicians, does just what the name suggests. Physicians will give a written prescription to patients for exercise at the site. The physician and patient will work together to identify walking distances suitable for the patient and set goals for increasing those distances, said Lena Sessions, the program organizer.

Providers will also give patients a map of the historic site, outlining 10 different walking trails. The trails vary in length, from 0.2 mile to 3 miles, and in difficulty. The map identifies elevation changes, possible obstacles (such as uneven terrain or gravel), bench availability and bus accessibility for each trail.

Providers will follow up with the patients, who typically have regular appointments to manage chronic diseases, to check on their progress and help set new goals.

The Park Prescription Program is modeled after a similar initiative at a national park in Indiana. The local effort launches next month.

“This program I’m working on is part of a larger effort, a national effort, to get more people outside, to get more people moving and using our local parks as a resource,” Sessions said.

Sessions, a Vancouver resident, is working on her master’s degree in public health at Portland State University. As part of the program, she was required to choose an area of emphasis. That led her to establish the local Park Prescription Program.

“I’ve always been interested in the connection between parks and greenspace and how we can use parks in our community to improve health,” Sessions said.

The idea to establish the local program came from a conversation Sessions had with a few Vancouver health care providers. The physicians told her they were seeing more and more patients come into their offices with high blood pressure, chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, and high levels of stress.

“A lot of these conditions can be really improved by spending time outdoors,” Sessions said.

Patients with heart disease or diabetes are some of the people best suited for the program, Faires said. Heavy exercise can be dangerous for people who aren’t active. But the amount of activity a person can get from walking around a park can safely help inactive people with cardiac issues, Faires said.

A study found that, among the diabetes population, walking 15,000 steps per day led to an average 15-pound weight loss in one year, Faires said. That’s without making any diet changes. Exercising outdoors has also been found to relieve stress and lower anxiety levels, she said.

While physicians may recommend the program more to their patients with chronic diseases, it’s not restricted to those patients.

“Almost anybody could benefit,” Faires said. “We could all be more active.”

Something as simple as walking gets people moving and can be a gateway to other exercise, said Greg Maul, a physician assistant at Providence’s Mill Plain clinic. Many people associate exercise with sweating at the gym or climbing a mountain, but it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.

“The ultimate benefit is getting out there, having a healthier lifestyle,” Maul said.

The new program will not only engage people in their community in a healthy way, but also promote an overlooked local resource, he said.

“I think we are really lucky in Vancouver,” Sessions said. “We really have a fabulous network of trails, and I just think this is a great way to get more people out in the community, exploring what parks and greenspace we do have.”