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Weld County doctors have an unusual new prescription: spending time outside

Some health-care providers are now prescribing time outside to improve physical and mental health through the Outdoor RX program.

DENVER — Some doctors and therapists in Weld County are prescribing time outdoors to improve their patients' health as part of a program rebooted this month called Outdoor Rx.

It's a simple idea that fits with Colorado's culture: Go outside and feel better.

Eric Aakko, with the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, said heart disease and high blood pressure are challenges there, along with obesity rates going up. He also said more people struggle with their mental health.

That's why the health department launched Outdoor Rx. When the program initially launched in 2018, health officials handed out thousands of Outdoor Rx-specific prescription pads. During this year's reboot, they've handed out another 4,000.

"When a health-care provider writes a prescription, I want you go 10 minutes outside everyday," Aakko said. "People tend to do that."

According to the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, this is a one-of-a-kind idea in the state. It is however found in other places in the U.S. and internationally, like in Canada.

The Canadian program's website says side effects of this prescription are living longer, better heart health and reduced stress and anxiety.

Dr. Lynn Stiff, who practices family medicine in Greeley, said the general consensus is that two hours a week outside can have benefits.

"Just time in nature has health benefits," Stiff said. "If I just sit with this house plant, I can get health benefits. Studies show improved moods and stress just by being in nature.

"We don't really know why," she added. "But there some idea it's around evolutionary how we grew up in nature."

Outdoor time can also improve mental health, cognitive ability and how kids perform in school, and improve chronic diseases, Stiff said.

If that outdoor time is spent doing exercise that's a bonus, she said.

"The third piece is connection," she said, adding that former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy brought to light the importance of social connection and the impacts of loneliness.

Murthy previously told The Washington Post that the reduction in lifespan from loneliness is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

"Being out in nature is not always connecting with other people," Stiff said. "You might see other people, see animals, connect to them, and that piece of being connected to the world."

It says a lot about how people live their lives, connected online but disconnected at the same time. It's taking some doctors and behavioral health specialists writing prescription for people to go outside.

"A doctor telling you to prioritize, it might move it up on your list," Stiff said.

The state is revisiting how to scale up programs like this, and a big part of it will be equity.

For example, 9NEWS has talked about how minority neighborhoods in Denver don't have enough tree canopy, affecting how hot their neighborhoods get, impacting their health and plans to fix that.    

Families also don't always have easy access to green spaces and parks. Colorado has grants and programs currently working on that and will also assess ways to make more improvements.

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