This fall, a trip to the Toronto Zoo in Toronto, Ontario, could be just what the doctor ordered. Healthcare professionals can now prescribe a trip to the Zoo to improve mental and physical health, thanks to a new collaboration with PaRx, Canada’s national nature prescription program.

The BC Parks Foundation launched PaRx in November 2020, starting in British Columbia, and expanded to every province nationwide by 2022. In under three years, over 11,000 healthcare providers, including over five percent of all physicians in the country, have registered to prescribe time outside for their patients’ health. The program helps connect thousands of Canadians to nature. PaRx has also been endorsed by over 80 major healthcare organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association.

“Visiting the Zoo isn’t only about seeing animals and learning about how you can support conservation; it’s also about getting outside at any time of year and exploring our 10km walking trails in a safe, beautiful site,” said Dolf DeJong, the chief executive officer of the Toronto Zoo. “COVID was hard on everyone, but it also served as a reminder of the importance of carving out time for mental health breaks, connecting with one another, and taking some time away from our devices to get in touch with the natural world and the animals that need our help.”

A growing body of research shows that connecting to nature has a wide variety of health benefits, from improving symptoms of depression and ADHD to reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. PaRx recommends an achievable, evidence-based green-time target of “two hours per week, 20+ minutes each time”. Given how zoos combine recreation, education, and conservation to engage people of all ages, scientists increasingly recommend that they take on a more significant role in promoting human wellbeing.

Adult and child walking on a paved path.

In addition to the wide range of health benefits for humans, nature prescriptions can also improve the wellbeing of our planet. Research shows that exposure to nature promotes pro-environmental values and behaviors that extend beyond support for conservation. Places like the Toronto Zoo play a critical role in building public support for conservation and other environmental efforts by connecting visitors to the wildlife and wild spaces they strive to protect.

As the first zoo in Canada to join PaRx’s mission, the Toronto Zoo is perfectly positioned to help connect the community to nature as Canada’s Rouge National Urban Park surrounds the Zoo. Within the Zoo, guests are brought face-to-face with African lions, Masai giraffes, and more than 290 other species in seven geographical regions. By presenting their PaRx prescription and matching ID at the entrance gate, patients can enjoy 50 percent off their admission on the day of their visit.

“We want to make sure that people who need it can get out easily and affordably to benefit from the healing power of nature,” said Andy Day, chief executive officer of the BC Parks Foundation. “Through the generosity of our partners like the Toronto Zoo, we are able to help connect children and adults from across the country to nature in deep, consistent, and meaningful ways.”

As a world leader in the nature and health field, PaRx was recently named a key partner in a €6.3 million international project on nature-based therapies that will provide a road map for communities worldwide that seek to introduce nature as a health intervention. Other notable milestones for nature prescribing in Canada include PaRx’s recognition in 2021 by the World Health Organization as an effective way to inspire the restoration and protection of nature for our health and the inclusion of nature prescribing as an official recommended policy for learners and physicians by the Canadian Medical Association in 2022.

“It’s remarkable how quickly PaRx has grown, the partnerships it’s inspired, and how it’s changing conversations worldwide about the vital connections between nature, biodiversity, and health. Our collaboration with the Toronto Zoo is a wonderful way to move our mission forward in an exciting new direction,” said Dr. Melissa Lem, director of PaRx.

Photos Credit: © The Toronto Zoo

Edited by Sarah Gilsoul, a writer and communications program assistant at AZA.

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