By Melissa Brown
Special to the Times
Imagine going to your doctor and walking out with two prescriptions: one for medication for high blood pressure or a strep infection and another for 150 minutes of weekly exercise.
We’ve all heard diet and exercise suggestions from our doctors, but an actual prescription for better health is becoming a reality thanks to a new program called Parks Rx.
This initiative—led locally by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC) and a slate of community partners—hopes to reconnect Birmingham residents with nature and help them adopt healthier lifestyles.
In addition to working with doctors to prescribe better health habits, the program is mapping close to 100 parks and greenspaces in Birmingham where people can go to walk, run, play ball, or participate in other physical activities.
A Prescription for Better Health
A Washington, D.C. pediatrician pioneered the country’s first Parks Rx program in 2013.
Robert Zarr, MD was concerned about the rates of chronic disorders like obesity and asthma he saw at his clinic, a health center that cares for low-income and immigrant populations. Zarr wanted to give specific activity recommendations to his patients, but that meant he needed a working knowledge of the parks and greenspaces easily accessible by his patients.
That led to mapping the 280 parks in Washington, D.C., which Zarr did with the National Park Service and volunteers from the George Washington University School of Public Health, according to a National Public Radio report. A national Park Rx initiative followed in 2014; it was spearheaded by the National Recreation and Park Association, the National Park Service, and the Institute at the Golden Gate.
At the same time, the UAB MHRC was awarded a competitive $3 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help reduce a chronic disease health gap in Birmingham’s African-American neighborhoods. This led to the Birmingham REACH for Better Health program, a coalition of community partners who work to increase access to healthy food and exercise opportunities. The Birmingham Parks Rx program followed.
“Data show that people tend to respond well to a physician’s prescription,” said Mona Fouad, MD, MPH director of the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine and the MHRC. “If they say you have to take this pill, you’ll take this pill.”
So the REACH team developed just that: a prescription to be delivered to healthcare providers recommending more exercise and more fresh foods.
“This prescription is a tangible step,” said Mark Wilson, MD Health Officer for Jefferson County. “Patients can carry it home with them and say, ‘I can actually do this.’”
Exercise and Beyond
The Parks Rx program, with its prescription for exercise and mapping of close to 100 Birmingham greenspaces, aims to help people in the Magic City take control of their overall health.
The Parks Rx website (www.reachforbetterhealth.com/parksrx), where people can enter their ZIP code to search for nearby parks, is working to map Birmingham’s parks in a manner that will enable residents to select the spaces that best cater to their needs. For example, according to park profiles on the website, Rotary Trail provides a great walking and running track, but you might want to try Railroad Park for gym and playground equipment.
But Parks Rx isn’t simply about getting your heart rate up, Wilson says.
“We’ve really lost something very important—just getting outdoors and having fun,” he said. “This isn’t necessarily about putting on your running shoes and using exercise equipment. It’s simply about getting outdoors.”
Studies show that getting outdoors into nature can have a positive impact on both mental and physical health by reducing stress levels, Wilson said.
The REACH and Parks Rx programs aim to reach kids in certain urban areas, in particular, where they might be living under stress due to issues of poverty or crime.
“The stress hormones rise when people are scared or under duress can lead to poor health outcomes like obesity, we think,” Wilson said. “We believe that getting out in nature could help lower those stress hormones and improve mental health as well.”
Wilson feels it’s important to start connecting children with nature early in their lives, before they get too attached to electronic devices or spending days indoors. Their imaginations will keep them entertained, he said.
“Get them out in the woods, and they’ll start playing with sticks and rocks,” Wilson said. “Get them outdoors, get them out to a park or trail, and they’ll find things to do.”
Parks Rx can offer respite to older generations, as well. Birmingham Parks and Recreation Board spokesman Stanley Robinson says city parks can act as a social network and hub for people who may be more isolated at home.
“A social network has developed in a lot of our community parks,” Robinson said. “Groups get together to walk daily. For some seniors that is the only social interaction they get that day.”
Birmingham Park and Recreation Director Kevin Moore points to a walking group that hits the pavement at East Lake Park as early as 4 a.m. The desire to keep moving and focus on health has led many to establish friendships off the walking track.
“Sometimes you need somebody to check on you,” Moore said.
Though the REACH and Parks Rx programs have been spearheaded by the UAB MHRC, Fouad says community partnerships have driven the initiatives forward.
“We had a vision from the beginning, but it’s actually exceeded our expectations,” Fouad said. “The community engagement itself has been great.”
The MHRC has worked alongside Birmingham Park and Recreation, as well as organizations like the Freshwater Land Trust, which is working to cultivate connected and accessible green spaces for Birmingham’s residents.
“It makes such a difference to spend time out in the woods. It does something for your whole being,” said Memorie English, Freshwater Land Trust communications director. “It’s an easy, cost-efficient way to improve your health overall.”
Organizations like REV Birmingham’s Urban Food project are putting fresh fruits and vegetables in corner stores in the Avondale and Kingston neighborhoods, while the Jefferson County Department of Health liaisons with its physicians who serve those communities.
On a more intimate scale, community stakeholders play a key role in improving the health of their fellow residents. For instance, Brenda Woods of the North Avondale Neighborhood Association has helped communicate the needs and concerns of her community to the UAB MHRC. And Kingston natives and brothers Hamidullah and Hassan Rahmaan have worked for years to revitalize their neighborhood, particularly Stockham Park.
The Rahmaan brothers have been involved for decades in community leadership and coaching little league teams. Hamidullah said that watching kids playing around unsafe, uncovered sewer drains in Stockham Park several years ago motivated him to help create a safer community space in Kingston.
In partnership with the Kingston Neighborhood Sports Association, the Rahmaans transformed a playground area and a baseball field in Stockham Park. The brothers painted parking lot markers and fence posts themselves, and raised funds for new benches and a scoreboard.
Recently, on a sunny August day, Hamidullah strolled around the park and pointed out the neatly painted concession stand and field lights that were installed in 2015. They hope to install a new basketball court surface soon and revitalize a walking track by adding more lighting.
For the Rahmaans, partnering with REACH and Parks Rx was a no-brainer. They believe nature is important for the physical, spiritual, and intellectual parts of us.
“I’m proud to be a partner with REACH,” Hamidullah said. “It’s not a coincidence that we came from the earth, and we’re going to return to it. Man is not bigger than the earth. He needs the earth.”
This story is from our UAB Parks Rx supplement. To read more about Parks Rx and Birmingham REACH for Better Health, pick up the 9/22 issue of The Birmingham Times.