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Improving wellness and increasing joy: Prescribing nature activity

Dr. Joanne McGinn

Dr. Joanne McGinn wants her patients to have more fun and joy in their lives. It’s why the emergency medicine physician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital often “prescribes” exercise as part of her patients’ treatments. She believes combining exercise with social activity in nature can improve physical and mental conditions and reduce risk factors for chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, and certain cancers.

“Think about the activities that gave you joy as a child such as riding a bike, swimming with friends or exploring the woods, and look for ways to bring some of that fun back into your life,” Dr. McGinn said. “This is not going to solve all of the physical and mental health problems out there, but exercise and time outside can certainly help people feel a bit better, and who doesn’t need a little more joy in their life?”

Dr. McGinn leads by example. Although she doesn’t consider herself an athlete, she does participate in several physical activities that bring her happiness, such as mountain biking, cycling, skiing, and hiking. She says she loves staying active and exercising outdoors in all seasons and insists PEI trails and beaches are just as beautiful in the winter months.

Dr. McGinn works long shifts at the hospital, so she values the ability to multitask, often listening to podcasts or audiobooks on her hikes or combining her social time with friends and outdoor group recreation.

“I take inspiration from my entire department. I’m surrounded by an amazing group of active physicians and staff who practice what they preach,” Dr. McGinn said. “We try to model a healthy lifestyle. We know being in nature can bring peace, help you turn your brain off, and relieve stress. We also know the time you invest in exercise now is going to help you be stronger and more mobile later in life.”

When Dr. McGinn approaches her patients with a “prescription” for exercise, she does so with compassion and the understanding that it can be difficult for people to work physical activity into their lives. Sometimes her patients have small children, strained finances, no access to reliable transportation, long work hours, or physical or mental conditions that present a barrier to regular exercise. Dr. McGinn looks for ways to help her patients reduce barriers to living a healthy, active life.

“I don’t take their situations lightly. I understand the privileges in my life that allow me to be active,” Dr. McGinn said. “If all you can manage is to get out of bed and walk or move around outside for 15 minutes, do that. Do what you can afford, whatever is accessible to you, and focus on small changes. Think of it as investing in yourself, investing in your future.”

There are free and accessible parks and trail systems throughout the province, as well as initiatives Island-wide to encourage people to try new activities, such as learn-to-skate programs, biking navigation assistance, swimming classes, and walking groups. Dr. McGinn points to Cycling PEI, Bike Friendly Charlottetown, go!PEI, and Island Trails as examples. She says the Confederation Trail is one of PEI’s jewels for free and accessible activity, and the Wright’s Creek trail system in Charlottetown is one of her favourite nature refuges that she recommends to her patients.

Dr. Joanne McGinn

“Parks Canada also promotes PaRx, an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation that’s being driven by health care professionals,” said Dr. McGinn. “It’s a national, evidence-based nature prescription program that allows physicians to prescribe outdoor activity and provide patients with access to things like national park passes if cost is a barrier.”

According to research cited on the PaRX website, people who spend at least two hours per week in nature report significantly better health and wellbeing. When it comes to the mental health benefits of nature, the science cited suggests that the most efficient drop in cortisol happens between the 20-to-30-minute mark, which is why the PaRx program recommends nature activity prescriptions of two hours per week for 20+ minutes at a time.

“Exercise is a known treatment that can help with mild to moderate symptoms of some physical and mental conditions,” Dr. McGinn said. “That said, we know that bad things can happen to good people no matter how healthy they eat or how much exercise they get. There are multiple factors that cause disease and some of it is out of our control. A healthy lifestyle can help mitigate the risk of chronic illness. Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and exercising, for example, will reduce risk. Besides the health benefits, immersing ourselves in nature, being social and more active, can bring joy. Adults typically don’t have nearly as much fun as children and I’d love to see that change for the better.”

To learn more about PaRx and access supports or tips for prescribing nature, visit