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Two recent posts on ASLA’s “The Dirt” blog, and Mark’s Daily Apple came at a good time for this post.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to combine the design of the natural environment with healthcare (beyond “healthcare design”, which currently applies mostly to hospitals and clinics), and how to do it in a way that could really change lives.

In following the Ancestral Health Symposium on Twitter (see last week’s post), there were posts about the idea that gyms, specifically Crossfit gyms, should be the center of one’s healthcare.  I wholeheartedly agree.  Environments like Crossfit gyms foster stringent exercise, a healthy diet, and do so with a strong sense of community.  Even though it may not be the perfect solution, this is a really good place to start thinking about how medicine can become more of a community activity than a parent-like prescription of what to do, and what not to do.

By following the chain started by Mark Sisson’s post, I came across this article describing a park prescription program.  A doctor has a prescription pad with specific parks or exercise recommendations on it, that are then given to the patient as part of their care.  Since the benefits of exercising in a natural setting are numerous (as well as just being in a natural setting), this kind of program can have a massive impact, provided the patients actually follow the recommendations.

If doctors and nurses practiced medicine from a gym (literally), the prescription would probably look more like the following:

“Due to your current work schedule and family obligations, it’s looking like a morning workout program would be best for you, so we’d like to see you at more 6 am classes.  Also, since you’re having some bone mass issues, we’re going to change your programming from metabolic conditioning to a more strength-oriented approach.  I’d like to see you cut back on the caffeine and alcohol for a while, and start doing some foam-rolling in the evenings.  Get to bed by 9.”

Since you’re a member of the gym, the doctor knows whether or not you’ve been taking their advice seriously or just half-assing it.  Then, knowing your level of commitment, they can adjust the prescription accordingly.

Now, imagine if this gym was a park.  Sure, you had the “box” where you did some of the heavy lifting and kept equipment, but it would be designed to be more airy and make you aware that you’re in a park (versus an industrial complex, although I’m sure there’s some benefit to that setting as well).  All the running and activity that would usually take place on a treadmill, track, or parking lot would take place in a park-like setting.  Workout of the Day: run 200 yards on the trail, climb a tree, run back, pull-ups on the monkey bars.  Pick up a big rock and carry it to the creek.  Grab another rock and carry it back.

Beyond the obvious child-like fun of this exercise, it would be incredibly physically-challenging.  It would also promote natural awareness.  Maybe Erwan Le Corre from MovNat is in on the programming.

This is all a “perfect world” scenario, but I think it has tremendous promise for increasing health.  It would also be fun as heck to design a place like this.  But, it does pose a problem.  Funding.

Land is precious.  Since parks are predominantly tax-payer funded and tracts of land like what I’ve just described are almost non-existent in major urban areas (where they would do the most good), there can’t be a one-size recommendation.  Maybe the gym is located within a 1/4-mile radius of a park, and an agreement is made between the gym owner and the entity overseeing the park’s operations.  In exchange for usage, gym members could do periodic clean-up and maintenance of the park as a volunteer activity.  Community garden, anyone?

In some locations, it may be feasible to purchase land or pay some share of a park’s budget as a joint venture between multiple gyms.  They could be divided by age groups.  Bordering the same park, gyms could exist that cater predominantly to children up to age 8.  A gym for ages 9-14.  A gym for those over 60.  They would all share the same park space, with the eldest groups getting priority on equipment.  This would foster interaction between the groups, a sense of community within each gym (which could then have a medical staff dedicated to their specific needs, like what exists now with Pediatricians and senior care doctors), and would connect them all via nature.

This is just one possible scenario in which parks and exercise become a part of the healthcare discussion, versus amenities or infrastructure, but these kinds of ideas are crucial to how we solve our health and environmental issues going forward.  Environment and health have never been separate, so let’s design programs and spaces that entwine them.