The Appalachian Mountain Club and Massachusetts General Hospital are launching a novel effort to combat child obesity by prescribing visits to a glittering pond, a colorful arboretum, or some other outdoor location.
On Wednesday, MGH and the club unveiled Outdoors Rx , which they said is the first program of its kind that allows health care professionals to prescribe outdoor activity to children in hope of fighting childhood obesity, diabetes, and asthma.
“One of the limitations of our classic medical model is we are very reactive,” said Dr. Christina Scirica, a pulmonologist and obesity expert who coordinates the program at MGH. “We treat these ailments with medication, many of which have side effects that we would like to avoid. The idea of this program is to take a wellness-oriented approach to preventing these conditions.”
The program began Wednesday and will conduct its pilot phase in Framingham and Waltham, with more than 60 medical professionals in both communities participating.
The program hopes to have 5,000 outdoor prescriptions filled within 12 months, with the goal of getting half a million youths outdoors by 2020, the Appalachian Mountain Club said.
Scirica said the outdoor prescriptions are meant to supplement more traditional means of care.
Children now spend only a few minutes on average outdoors every day, as opposed to a few hours engaged with technology, said Pam Hess, the club’s program director for Outdoors Rx.
“Its certainly a sign of our times that outdoor prescriptions are needed,” Hess said.
Physicians are encouraged to prescribe the outdoor activity not just to children suffering from obesity or other ailments, but to most young patients in hope of exciting a generation about the outdoors.
A copy of the prescription, which contains contact information for the child, will stay with the physician. With this information, physicians will follow up with families if they do not seem to be getting outdoors, Hess said.
The follow-up communication will encourage families to join their local Appalachian Mountain Club and provide guidance on how to plan a family outdoor outing.
The prescription is largely symbolic, with a doctor in effect recommending outdoor activity for the patient. The program will not cost patients any money.
An Outdoors Rx website is also available to families, which includes information on weekly outdoor events in their communities for every season.
Children can also track their outdoor progress online and earn rewards for healthy activity.
MGH and the club said they hope to expand the program to neighboring communities in the coming months, and perhaps to other states if it succeeds.