Doctor writes “park prescriptions,” urges patients to experience the health benefits of walking


While many doctors may tell a patient that they should lose weight to help their overall health, it’s virtually unheard of that they write a prescription to do so, let alone provide them with a specific exercise regimen that takes their daily commuting habits and personal interests into consideration. Yet, Dr. Robert Zarr of Unity Health Care, a Washington, D.C. clinic dedicated to serving uninsured and low-income area families, is doing just that (1).

Linking medical records with park systems to create healthier patients

In fact, with the help of some park rangers, public health volunteers, and funding from various associations, he’s mapped out 380 parks in the District of Columbia that are electronically linked with patients’ medical records (1).

For many of his patients who can benefit from exercise, he provides them with a specific outdoor activity that involves making use of the various park systems in the database. One such “park prescription,” for example, was for 13-year-old Kelssi Aguilar to “Walk the remaining four blocks on the second bus on your route to school from home, every day (1).”

Aguilar, Dr. Zarr’s patient, used to take a series of different public transportation methods to get to school. Dr. Zarr’s prescription advised her to exchange the final leg of her bus ride for a walk. She was urged to walk the rest of the way to school instead of take public transportation for that last stretch of time. Admitting to being lazy, Aguilar says that at first she was very hesitant. These days, however, she looks forward to that 40-minute walk to school, explaining that she even often arrives several minutes earlier than when she took the bus.

The need for more than a seven minute doctor-patient visit

Furthermore, Dr. Zarr engages with his patients, something that seems to be dwindling in today’s hurried society.

In fact, according to Dr. Peter Salgo, a professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, the average doctor-patient face-to-face time averages a mere seven minutes, something he believes needs to change. Salgo explains that patients deserve more self-respect, saying that the ” . . . medical establishment has, many of us feel, simply rolled over and gone along to get along. It has sacrificed patients’ best interests on the altar of financial return (2).”

That’s why Dr. Zarr stands out from the crowd. “I like to listen and find out what it is my patients like to do and then gauge the parks based on their interests, based on their schedules, based on the things they’re willing to do (2),” he says.

The health benefits of walking involve more than weight maintenance

Walking has many health benefits, which according to the Mayo Clinic range from improving mood and maintaining a healthy weight to preventing heart disease and managing diabetes (3).

Rather than thinking of walking as boring or something that must be done with extreme vigor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says “It’s about what works best for you, as long as you’re doing physical activity at a moderate or vigorous effort for at least 10 minutes at a time (4).”

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