For The Health Of It

By Brook Powell
Photos: Tennessee State Parks

From mountains that roll in like waves to rivers, no one spot in Tennessee looks the same from day to day as each vibrant seasonal change transforms the landscape. It’s no wonder that nature is so beneficial to physical, mental, and developmental health. With 56 state parks, there are thousands of miles of trails, walkways, and waterways for visitors to experience the outdoors and engage in physical activity at no cost. If that, along with the health benefits isn’t enough to get one going, there is now a new program that encourages people to go outside and disconnect from their electronic devices.

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Tennessee State Parks (TSP) and the Tennessee Department of Health (TDOH) teamed up in 20156 to develop a program called Healthy Parks Healthy Person. This mobile device application was created to boost activity in parks and also increase residents’ overall health. The program allows individuals to log physical activities completed at any park in Tennessee, whether state, national, county, or city. Experiences can include hiking, walking, biking, running, swimming, paddling, rock climbing, or playing a sport. Each activity accrues points that can then be redeemed for rewards at any state park. These rewards can be free camping, cabins, meals, golf, or gift shop items.

The program also includes a Park Prescription feature—considered the heart of the program—to reach people who need the program the most. The park prescription pad looks similar to a “normal” prescription pad and guides participants to the Healthy Parks Healthy Person application. TDOH officials encourage residents to talk to their healthcare providers about options for engaging in outdoor activities. This also gives providers a way to refer patients to take the initiative to participate in outdoor activity as a counterpart to treat physical and mental-health issues.

A Closer Look
“Access to green spaces and parks is critical for emotional, mental and physical health,” says Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, MD, MBA, FAAP. “Our continued partnership with Tennessee State Parks and the Healthy Parks Healthy Person program demonstrates our commitment to ensuring residents have a better quality of life.”

Among the benefits of outdoor exercise are the following:

  • People tend to engage in more strenuous exercise outdoors than they would inside.

  • People have higher feelings of enthusiasm, pleasure, and self-esteem when exercising in a natural setting.

  • Time outdoors has been proven to help treat conditions such as diabetes, obesity, ADHD, mental-health issues, heart disease, and autism-spectrum disorders.

Ryan Jenkins, Park Manager at Henry Horton State Park, gives some data on how the program is faring. “The goal for the program was 800 users within the first year. There are now over 3,800 users who have logged over 57,000 activities on the app and are making steps to improve their health by getting outside!” At double the goal, there is also a statewide advisory group that participates in bi-monthly phone calls to coordinate the expansion of the program, which has received support from the TN Medical Association, TN Nurses Association, TN Pediatrics Association, and the Healthier TN Initiative.

“With the numbers of participants so far for the application and the number of healthcare providers participating, Tennessee is definitely on the right track to being healthier,” Jenkins says. One user commented that it’s a great reminder to have on his phone. He says he picks up his phone to check social media or see what there is to do and the icon reminds him to get outside.

If your state is interested in having this program available for residents, or if you’re a healthcare provider who would like to begin writing Park Prescriptions, contact Jenkins at Ryan.jenkins@tn.gov.

To view the program, visit app.healthyparkstn.com on your mobile device. There is no fee for this application.

Brook Powell is an Environmental Scientist with the Office of Policy and Sustainable Practices for the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. Her primary areas of focus are with Tennessee’s Higher Education Institutions and managing programs that support them and their local underserved communities. Reach her at brook.powell@tn.gov.