Physicians in SF are prescribing park time to patients 

click to enlarge Pedestrians walk along a path at Golden Gate Park's Stowe Lake in San Francisco, Monday, March 10, 2014. - AP PHOTO/JEFF CHIU
  • AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
  • Pedestrians walk along a path at Golden Gate Park's Stowe Lake in San Francisco, Monday, March 10, 2014.
Many of the prescriptions San Francisco physician Dr. Daphne Miller writes for her patients cannot be filled at a pharmacy. That’s because they look something like this:

Drug: Exercise in Glen Canyon Park

Dose: 45 minutes of walking or running

Directions: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7 a.m.

Refill: Unlimited

Dubbed a park prescription, such instructions have become a common theme among health care providers in The City in recent years due to a joint effort between doctors and parks officials to increase a patient’s time spent outdoors rather than encouraging them to reach inside the medicine cabinet.

San Francisco launched a two-year pilot initiative called Healthy Parks, Healthy People in July 2012 at the Southeast Health Center in the Bayview, becoming the nation’s first city to implement the program through its health system.

Last year, the initiative expanded to include the training of more than 200 parks and health care professionals in The City. And in October, 175 health providers from the maternal, child and adolescent section of the Department of Public Health were trained to refer patients to parks.

“The intentional connection of parks and health is pretty compelling,” said Howard Levitt, a spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. “Parks have an importance beyond just sheer enjoyment. When people understand that time in parks ... can actually improve your health, parks become even more important.”

Levitt is among the parks and health leaders who helped launch the initiative, after similar efforts gained popularity in Australia. The idea, spearheaded by the Institute at the Golden Gate, which promotes the benefits of open space, is to explore natural alternatives to medicine and increase access to parks, said Kristin Wheeler, the institute’s program director.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Recreation and Park Department have also launched five programs related to Healthy Parks, Healthy People that have been attended by more than 1,000 park users in all nine Bay Area counties.

Park prescriptions are beneficial to patients suffering from chronic or mental illness, as well as those who are overweight, according to health officials. However, a recent study found that doctors lacked a process by which to diagnose physical activity.

In fact, findings from the Community Health Resources Survey in May revealed nearly all 79 health care providers surveyed in The City would recommend fitness programs for inactive patients, but only 30 percent of providers offer specific information to enable exercise.

“In some cases ... it was difficult for me to even ask about physical activity for the family because I didn’t have a quick and easy solution,” Dr. Curtis Chan, a deputy health officer with the Department of Public Health, said of the challenges doctors faced before a specific park prescription plan was implemented.

Today, however, Chan encourages patients and other health care providers to prescribe ACTive Zones identified in The City, known as free, entry-level, drop-in physical activity programs. ACTive Zones include regular Zumba classes taught by Rec and Park officials, and nature walks held each Saturday.

“The more specific you can get in the prescription, the more likely it is to be done,” said Miller, who has prescribed parks to her patients for nearly two decades.

After Pacifica resident Gabriela Segovia-McGahan, 47, learned she is prediabetic last month, Segovia-McGahan’s doctor encouraged her to increase exercise by taking additional Zumba classes in The City.

“Exercise and diet are a better form of medicine than prescriptions,” Segovia-McGahan said of her doctor’s recommendation. “It’s a pretty great idea. Just getting people moving gets them on the right track for health.”

Phil Ginsburg, Rec and Park’s general manager, said the density of San Francisco should not discourage anyone from visiting parks. “Nearly 98 percent of us live within a 10-minute walk of a park,” Ginsburg said of San Francisco residents. “We really are a city that has open-space access.”

Spending more time among nature also appears to have positive effects on health. More than a quarter of the 177 San Francisco residents — primarily from Sunset, Bayview and Parkside — surveyed in July and August who attend free fitness group classes reported an improvement in general health status.

Wheeler, with the Institute at the Golden Gate, said efforts are under way to develop partnerships with health departments elsewhere in the Bay Area. Marin County is likely next up, with a potential partnership slated for this summer.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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