It was a glorious early summer afternoon, but left to their own devices, Lisa Rivera’s two girls would have been inside fighting over the television remote.
That’s why the Framingham resident insists that her girls participate in a program run by the recreation center in her apartment complex — and prescribed by the girls’ pediatrician.
Many kids today don’t get outside enough, especially those without generous backyards or parents eager to lead them on nature walks.
So area pediatricians are increasingly writing prescriptions to encourage kids and teens to spend time outside, particularly during the summer months, when the weather is good and the lack of structured activity can lead to weight gain.
“Weight is just a symptom of the problem,” said Dr. Christina Scirica, medical director of the Outdoors Rx program run jointly by MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the Appalachian Mountain Club. “If I can get kids away from their computers, TV, and up off the couch and outside — that’s one of my major goals.”
A number of programs around the country prescribe exercise or lifestyle changes for children and families, handing out jump ropes, gym memberships, coupons for fruits and vegetables, and, at MassGeneral, a certificate urging families to “Get up, get out and get active!”
“Having a physician hand someone a prescription to do something actually does work,” said Scirica, who is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “Not 100 percent of the time, but more than not having done it.”
Weight problems start when people are young, and lifestyle improvements have to become part of a daily routine in order to have an effect, said Dr. Alan Meyers, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine.
“All of us, I think, are aware of how difficult that is,” said Meyers, who regularly writes prescriptions for his adolescent patients to ride Hubway bikes. “If you can get them to ride a bike instead of a bus, they’re going to burn up calories.”
It took Meyers the better part of a year to arrange a deal with the Hubway bike sharing system and the City of Boston to allow teens to rent bikes without the credit card that is usually required.
Meyers, who bikes to work from Cambridge nearly every day year-round, said he’s not sure yet how well his bike program is working. He’s handed out a number of prescriptions, but hasn’t yet seen the patients again to check up on them. In the meantime, he said, he’s trying to convince more colleagues to prescribe bike riding, too.
The MassGeneral-Appalachian Mountain Club Outdoors Rx program, which is also nearly a year old, has trained more than 60 health care practitioners to write prescriptions for outdoor time to treat asthma, obesity, and even ear infections.
The vitamin D your body makes from being exposed to sunlight builds strong bones, wards off infection, and helps kids with asthma breathe better, Scirica said. Having fun is also a great stress reliever and mood booster, she said. Studies have shown that being out in nature can lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate and stress.
Outdoors Rx has held free programs for more than 1,700 children and families so far. “Our goal is to reach as many kids as we can,” said Pam Hess, director of youth engagement with the program, who recently won a national award for her efforts.
Another Outdoors Rx message: Getting outside doesn’t have to be complicated.
“I think people think of the outdoors as a mountain or the woods,” Scirica said. But all you need to do is go outside. “You can walk on pavement, or the grass. You can look at the bugs, run around after the fireflies. . . . It doesn’t have to be a nature hike. It can be in the backyard of the rec center or the sidewalks to and from school.”
Every Monday during the school year, Appalachian Mountain Club staff led outdoor activities at the Pelham Apartments complex in Framingham, where Rivera lives with her daughters, Dionelis, 10, and Diomaris, 9. On a recent afternoon, the first session of summer programming, her girls were among about 30 children who played running games in the shadow of some maple trees behind the rec center.
“The goal was to get them outside year-round and get them more appreciative,” said Libby Stockwell-Deegear, a former elementary school teacher who has led the weekly program. “I hope when they grow older, they’ll see outdoors as a place to be.”
Stockwell-Deegear was frustrated inside her Dorchester classroom when she had to force her students to sit down most of the day. This winter, she taught the children in Framingham to build snow forts, estimate how much water was in a glass full of snow, build fairy houses, and watch the giant tree in the yard turn colors, lose its leaves, and grow new ones. Her goal, she said, was also to provide “Unstructured play and freedom to be a kid.”
Rivera said the program has been great for her daughters, giving them something else to do besides stare at a screen or climb the walls. “It’s awesome. There’s no more mess in my house,” Rivera said, because the girls are out biking, roller skating, or playing at the rec center, where they’ve also joined a Girl Scout troop.
Rivera said the program has helped her, too. “I’m not a big outdoors person. I’m more of a computer person,” she said, but she recently went on a hike up nearby Tippling Rock for the first time, and surprised herself when she enjoyed it. “I can’t wait to go again.”
Kay Debrosse, who runs the recreation center at Pelham Apartments, said she’s seen major changes in kids since Outdoors Rx began. “They love outdoors more now,” Debrosse said. “They’re more willing to be helpful, to do something for others — not just for me, but for each other,” she said.
Recently, a red tailed hawk sat atop a telephone pole at the complex, devouring a squirrel. A year ago, such a thing might have gone unnoticed. But a child taught to look up did — and Debrosse now has the cellphone photos to prove it.
“They moan and groan when you tell them to get off their computer,” Debrosse said, “but then they don’t want to come back [inside].”
An hour a day keeps the doctor away. Even when life gets busy, make outdoor time a priority.
Have fun! Turn a walk into a scavenger hunt or a fun obstacle course.
Make it easy. Keep supplies like toys, shoes, and sunscreen within reach and ready to go.
Actions speak lower than words. Let your kids see that you enjoy doing outdoor activities with them.
Don’t let the weather keep you indoors. With a little preparation and the right clothing, families can safely get outside in almost any weather.
Limit screen time. Doctors recommend no more than 2 hours of screen time (TV, computers, gaming, etc) per day.
Get inspired. The Appalachian Mountain Club provides information about outdoors activities for families in the Greater Boston Area on its KidsOutdoors and OutdoorsRx websites.
Never compromise on safety. Teach children to always “play it safe” and wear helmets or life jackets when appropriate.
Karen Weintraub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.