What’s next as these companies step into the light and realize that all the time we spend in nature is making us healthier (and less at risk of developing expensive-to-treat conditions)? (Illustration: Stefania Infante)

Health Companies Want to Reward You for Going Outside

Spending time in nature is increasingly considered legitimate medicine, and doctors and insurance carriers are treating it as such. But how exactly can we expect this movement to play out—and affect our wallets and gear purchases—in the future?   

With nature-prescription initiatives popping up across the country (at the time of publication, there were 71 such programs in 32 states, according to the Institute at the Golden Gate’s 2018 ParkRx Census), the acceptance of nature as a legitimate form of medicine is finally here.

We’ve gotten to this point in large part thanks to a growing body of research that indicates a strong correlation between spending time outside and living a long and healthy life. For the first time, doctors, medical centers, and insurance companies (including behemoths like Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Kaiser Permanente) are interested in investing big in nature-prescription initiatives. “There’s a broader understanding of the importance of the social and environmental factors that go into making one healthy,” says Garth Graham, president of the Aetna Foundation.

So what’s next as these companies realize that all the time we spend in nature is making us healthier (and less at risk of developing expensive-to-treat conditions)? Will your health-insurance carrier reimburse you for your annual parks pass or season lift ticket? We looked into our crystal ball to find out what the future of nature prescription may look like on a spectrum from very likely to, well, we can dream, right?

Basically Happening Now

Hike with Your Doctor or Therapist

Not only will your doctor write you a park prescription, they’ll join you for a hike, too. Thousands of doctors around the world already lead community walks in local parks in 48 states as part of the Walk with a Doc program, and group hikes aren’t far off. Grab a healthy snack and get your blood pressure checked before hitting the trail at your own pace.

Or maybe you’ll meet your therapist for a nature walk. With therapists using jogging to support talk therapy, why not enlist nature’s calming effect, too? Interest in therapeutic hikes and ecotherapy, a form of therapy that emphasizes connection with the natural environment, is growing.

Attend Health Education Classes Outside

More health-oriented classes—from diabetes and prenatal education to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings—are moving out of dingy basements and into plein air as health educators take a cue from yoga and group exercise classes where outdoor sessions are de rigueur.

Parks are also inviting educators to come out. “We are seeing interest from all over the state from conversation and nature groups wanting to partner with providers to offer their open space for group sessions,” says Joni Carswell, CEO and president of Texan by Nature, one of the lead partners of the Center for Health and Nature along with Houston Methodist Hospital and Texas A&M University, which is driving research on the impact of nature on health and wellbeing. Soon you’ll meet under the old elm tree, not in room B-302.

Relax in Healing Gardens Before Your Doctor’s Appointment or Post-Op

For patients who can’t physically get to green spaces, hospitals will bring nature to you. Many new medical centers are prioritizing not only a LEED Platinum certification, but they’re also hiring architects to break the model of the sterile hospital experience by building opportunities to engage with nature inside and outside.

For example, green space is front and center in the design of the new Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, which has 3.5 acres of gardens. Inside, patient rooms are adorned with planter boxes and garden views, and waiting areas are framed by picture windows. The Center for Nature and Health has planned a flagship healing garden on the roof of Houston Methodist, since plants have been found to improve outcomes and outlooks for patients, and the center is hoping to create replicable evidence-based designs for waiting rooms.

Engage in Dirt Therapy at the Hospital

Gardening as therapy isn’t a new concept. In fact, it was used to treat World War II vets suffering from PTSD and has since been a mainstay program in addiction recovery centers and prisons. But as interest in the connection between nature and healing increases, you can expect to see horticultural therapy offered as part of your treatment plan. It’s already a key part of services provided at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation where plant-based activities help patients rehabilitate and regain physical, cognitive, emotional, and social function.

Coming Soon to a Green Space Near You

Hop an Access-a-Ride to Parks

Can’t hitch a ride to your local park? No worries. Your public health worker will arrange an Uber for you. Or you can hop on a designated nature shuttle from a health clinic, library, or park-and-ride location for a lift to a park or waterway.

It’s already happening in the Bay Area, where transportation is one of the biggest barriers to spending time in green spaces. Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy runs shuttle buses between public libraries in San Francisco and open spaces like Crissy Field and Lands End. Once a month in Oakland, a van transports patients and families from UCSF Benoiff Children’s Hospital to group hikes. In Santa Clara County, community health workers arrange taxis to green spaces for families who otherwise might not have been able to afford them.

Get a Free Park Day Pass

When your doctor writes you a prescription to spend a certain amount of time in nature, you’ll receive not only a list of nearby parks but a free day pass, too. Some states are testing this as a way to encourage repeat visits. In South Dakota, for example, people get a free day pass for any state park in conjunction with a doctor’s nature prescription and on the day they use the pass, they can redeem it for a discounted annual pass.

In Colorado, residents can go to their library and check out a backpack complete with a state parks pass, binoculars, a wildlife and plant guide, and a Leave No Trace ethics card. Rocky Mountain Health Plans, which covers over 180,000 Medicaid enrollees in Colorado, is designing a recreational referral program to connect Medicaid patients to subsidized recreational opportunities, creating a model for other state Medicaid accountable care organizations in the country.

Possible, If Companies Get Really Smart  

Redeem Outdoor Points for Free Gear

Headed out to spend some time on the water or at your local crag? Maybe soon you’ll be able to earn points for your time outside and cash them in for free gear like a new hydration pack, tent, or climbing shoes. It’s not such a far-out idea. Workplace wellness programs reward workers for healthy behaviors like getting a flu shot or an annual physical. Insurance companies like Humana and Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates in North Carolina and Massachusetts already partner with local parks and nonprofits to offer incentives to unplug in nature. Right now, kids in the Boston area can earn one point for each minute of active outdoor time and can earn points toward gear and trips, thanks to a partnership between the Appalachian Mountain Club, BCBS of Massachusetts, Boston-area healthcare facilities, and philanthropic supporters.

Get Reimbursed for Your Kayaking Class or Backpacking Trip

In the future, doctors may prescribe an adventure outing as part of your wellness or treatment plan. The best part? Your insurance company will cover the cost. “There’s value to getting outside, connecting with others, and pushing your comfort zone,” especially for those with a chronic health condition, says Jen Hanson, executive director of Connected in Motion, a Canada-based organization that runs day, weekend, and adventure trips for individuals with Type 1 diabetes. Participants learn how to handle their diabetes in the wilderness while canoeing, surfing, or backpacking.

First Descents is another nonprofit pioneering this approach. It’s working with doctors nationwide to prescribe adventure as part of the treatment plan for young cancer patients because of the transformative healing that occurs when challenging your comfort zone. Children’s Cancer Association, in partnership with REI, offers free adventures for teens and young adults around Portland, Oregon. And some organizations are combining outdoor adventure with health education.

Get Your Nature Vital Sign Checked

One day, there may be an official nature vital stat incorporated into your medical record alongside heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure. Some doctors are already incorporating this into wellness visits, asking patients how much time they spend outdoors. At well child visits, doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia screen children and connect them to nature prescriptions and outdoor-education programs like Nature Navigators as part of Philadelphia’s NaturePHL initiative.

Hey, We Can Dream

Do a Med School Rotation at a National Park

Wallace J. Nichols, author of the book Blue Mind, wants the benefits of nature-based therapies to be common knowledge. To achieve that, “it needs to become part of the curriculum for students becoming teachers and for men and women becoming nurses, doctors, and therapists,” he says.

Walk with a Doc is trying to deliberately bridge this knowledge gap through its Walk with a Future Doc program, which aims to be in every medical school by 2020. Medical schools offer rotations in wilderness medicine and aspiring doctors, nurses, and physician assistants can complete a clinical elective in rural medicine in Yellowstone National Park, another opportunity to talk more about relationship between nature and health.

Get Reimbursed for Your Season Lift Pass

Hear me out. Right now, some insurance plans cover a portion of your gym-membership fees, provided that the facility meets some basic requirements and you complete a specific number of visits within six months or a year. Maybe one day your health insurance company will reimburse you for a portion of the cost of your season lift pass. Ski and snowboarding wearables already exist and can provide documented proof of the day’s distance and vertical drop.

Filed To: NatureWellness
Lead Illustration: Stefania Infante
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