KP Logo
Print this!   Bookmark and Share

Health and Fitness

April 19, 2011

Kaiser Permanente Pediatrician Writes ‘Nature Prescriptions’ for Youth

Pediatrician Charles Owyang, MD, of Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara (Calif.) has been telling his young patients to turn over a new leaf — literally.

Children and Nature Initiative

Dr. Owyang has been writing “nature prescriptions” — advising that patients visit a park — to every child 12 and younger who comes in for a checkup. That equates to 135 prescriptions over the past two months. The pediatrician even uses a special prescription pad for the nature prescriptions.

This new prescription is part of government program called the Children and Nature Initiative. Since the National Environmental Education Foundation launched the program, a total of 40 health care professionals nationwide — including Dr. Owyang, and two Kaiser Permanente Hayward (Calif.) pediatricians Paul Espinas, MD, and Vanhanh Pham, MD, — have completed the nature–prescription training. Each participant was charged with sharing the program with their colleagues.

Studies show children who explore the great outdoors are healthier, less sedentary and more relaxed, with better attention spans.

Kids nowadays need all the help they can get in being active. Obesity is rising: About 32 percent of American children are overweight and 17 percent are obese. Their couch-potato lifestyles aren’t helping. Today, children 8 to 18 years old devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes to using computers, playing video games, and watching television during a typical day, according to a 2010 national study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

“When we decrease obesity, it reduces the risk of so many other future health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and even endometrial, breast, prostate and colon cancers,” Dr. Owyang said.

Dr. Owyang heard about the Children and Nature Initiative from a colleague and knew it was something he wanted to do.

“I’m passionate about being in nature myself,” he said. “I love it and my kids love it. It frees the mind and spirit. I’ve found that after being out in nature, my kids have better moods, better attitudes, and better appetites. I want the same thing for all my patients.”

He tells his patients and their families to go to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont and in Alviso, between Sunnyvale and Milpitas. Each prescription comes with a punch card that could lead to prizes and maps where outdoor experiences are led by rangers and volunteers.

He’s the exact type of provider the National Environmental Education Foundation was looking for, said Leyla McCurdy, senior director for Health and Environment with the foundation.

 “We were looking for pediatric health providers who are already passionate,” McCurdy said. “They just needed the tools. We gave them the scientific background that shows kids are healthier when they go out and play, especially in nature. That gives them the confidence level in writing the prescriptions.”

Since Dr. Owyang returned from the training, he has promoted the program to 70 fellow pediatric physicians in Santa Clara and San Jose. Physicians in Milpitas, Calif. are planning a lunchtime field trip to the nearby Alviso, so they can experience it first-hand in the hopes of more effectively promoting the program.

McCurdy praised Dr. Owyang's post-training work. “Everybody was committed, but Dr. Owyang has been more successful in identifying people to train. He is one of our stars.”

The prescriptions have been well-received by patients and colleagues alike, Dr. Owyang said. When he meets resistance from patients, he tells them about the beautiful scenery and almost-guaranteed sightings of egrets, cranes and other wildlife. Not to mention, the various free and educational family weekend programs they will encounter. At that point, he has usually won them over.

“It’s hard to just say, ‘Exercise,’ ” he said. “This gives them another option that not only strengthens family ties, but also builds bonds between our youth and nature — an investment into their mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health. Try it!”

For more information, visit www.neefusa.org.