HEALTH AND FITNESS: Your park prescription | Features

You probably know that exercise is good for you and that daily physical activity – going for a walk, for example – almost always leads to better health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function and greater feelings of wellbeing.

What you may not know is that where you exercise matters, too. Exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors.

Especially now, the chance to be active outdoors away from crowds is certainly a good idea. As summer begins, family travel plans may have been interrupted, so exploring parks and other outdoor places may be a smart and economical alternative to a vacation to place crowded with tourists.

The National Park Prescription (Park Rx) Initiative is designed to encourage people to make the outdoors their destination for exercise and family activities. The idea is to promote access to and use of parks, trails and other green spaces and highlight the health, environmental, social and economic benefits of having these resources in our communities. The benefits of parks can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of age or ability, so enhancing public lands should be a high priority.

This isn’t new of course, but it’s nice to have a reminder. At playgrounds you commonly see as many children playing in the trees that surround the swings, slides and monkey bars as you see on the playground equipment. Grassy areas serve as picnic spots, impromptu sports fields, and places to run and play. Trails through the woods offer a place to hike and bike as well as trees to explore and climb. Lakes, rivers and streams (called water trails) are perfect for rowing, paddling and swimming. And many public parks and green spaces have paved trails so that people of all ages in strollers or wheelchairs can enjoy the outdoors.

Fortunately, there many excellent parks and natural areas to explore in the Aiken area. Aiken state park, several county and city parks, multi-use paths and neighborhood playgrounds make it easy to find a place to walk, run, bike, hike, climb, swim, paddle, push or ride outdoors.

It also makes it easy to follow the Park Rx. Being active is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health and wellbeing. Activity in a natural environment has additional physical, mental and social health benefits. Share these benefits with others by planning outdoor activities with your family and friends.

For maximum effect, you should do this as often as possible – every day is best. And it doesn’t need to be a day long excursion. Taking your dog for a short walk, playing outside with the kids or even doing yard work are easy ways to reap the benefits of being active outdoors.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at or on Twitter @drparrsays.

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