Meet the doctor prescribing nature to her patients

In the first of our Climate Changemakers series launching on YouTube, we get to meet Dr. Melissa Lem. Known as the “nature doctor,” she is a family physician and passionate advocate leading a group of like-minded practitioners prescribing time in nature to help preserve our health and raise awareness about the environment.

We know that leading a balanced lifestyle is important, but are we overlooking the benefits of simple time in nature to help prevent and reverse serious health ailments?

A B.C. doctor that has been writing prescriptions for time in nature believes so, and hopes more people realize the real results it can bring for not only patients but the planet too.

A prescription worth filling

It turns out there really is science behind what we all innately know: we do feel better after getting some fresh air.

“Spending just 15 minutes in nature can significantly drop your cortisol levels. It can reduce your stress, reduce depression and anxiety, and increase your sense of well-being,” Dr. Melissa Lem explained to The Weather Network.

It was a realization she made after starting a practice in the middle of Toronto’s urban jungle during her early career, where she frequently felt the void of greenspace.

“There were streetcars, traffic, tons of noise, and I was way more stressed,” Lem said. “And I think it came down to being in an urban setting as opposed to being in nature.”

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Lem had a hunch she wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

“I started reading about it and learning more and what I found was there was a really significant body of evidence for the health benefits of nature,” she said.

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Melissa Lem near Mt. Baker in Washington state. (Submitted by Melissa Lem)

Dose of nature

One day, she met a patient whom she thought could benefit from more nature time as well. He had moved to Toronto from B.C. and was suffering from ADHD.

“I actually thought he was going to laugh at me or look at me funny because I’ve never recommended this to anyone before, but he actually nodded his head and said, ‘You’re right. The one thing I’ve been missing is the nature time.’”

After a few weeks of commitment she saw significant improvements in his mental health, so Lem started recommending her nature prescription to more patients.

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The typical script? At least two hours a week outside, for at least 20 minutes at a time. That could mean going for a hike in the forest, but it could also be something as simple as visiting a local playground, gardening, or taking a walk with your dog.

Lem said she took a deep dive into the research, which ultimately led her to help launch a park prescriptions program in 2020 in partnership with the BC Parks Foundation — a movement that began with the Parks RX in the U.S.

Her Canadian nature program, called PaRx, is the first of its kind in the country and is now in every province nationwide. PaRx is also the first nature prescription program to be officially endorsed by a national medical association: the Canadian Medical Association.

Now with more than 10,000 prescribers who have registered within Canada to follow the program and its evidence, Lem is trying to normalize the idea within the medical profession that nature is essential for good health. PaRx’s research shows that kids and adults who spend more time in nature are happier and healthier.

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Melissa Lem on the Prelude Lake trail in the Northwest Territories. (Submitted by Melissa Lem)

Possible side effects

Lem, who is also the president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, has become a media superstar and given talks around the globe. And through all of her environmental advocacy and personal journey she realized the connection between nature and humankind is even more important than we’ve ever realized.

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“I think having a child and feeling so protective as a mother that I need to secure his right to a healthy future is what made me start moving more into climate change advocacy,” she said.

RELATED: Why mothers hold untapped power in the climate fight

And it’s a driving force that is having massive ripple effects.

“When people are more connected to nature they’re more likely to protect it, not just conservation, but also saving energy, also advocating to the government for more green policies,” she said. “This is my life's work. My mission is to connect people with nature and also spread the message that it's good for the planet.”

Thumbnail image: Melissa Lem standing beside English Bay in Vanvouver, B.C. (Submitted by Melissa Lem)