Workdays are focused on helping his patients, young and old, feel better. But, when family practice doctor Chad Thury has some time for himself and his family, he likes to get outdoors and spend time in South Dakota’s parks.

“I grew up on a South Dakota farm and have always enjoyed being outside. As a family, we try to get out, hit local park trails or go camping,” Thury said.

He encourages his patients to do the same with the help of the Park Prescription Project.

Through the Park Prescription Project, healthcare providers, like Thury, can prescribe patients free 1-day park passes to enjoy one of more than 60 South Dakota State Parks.

“This is another tool to motivate folks to get outside and exercise,” explained Thury, who prescribes park passes to patients who are struggling with exercise. “This is designed to spark physical activity in a way that is fresh, new and different. When you walk or bike through one of our State Parks, there is always a change of scenery — different plants and animals to see — much different than working out on a treadmill in the basement.”

Made available through a collaborative partnership between SDSU Extension, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks and South Dakota Department of Health, the Park Prescription Project is designed to encourage physical activity among South Dakotans of all ages.

“Many South Dakota adults and children fall short of meeting the recommended physical activity levels,” explained Nikki Prosch, SDSU Extension health and physical activity field specialist and coordinator of the Park Prescription Project. “When a healthcare provider prescribes a free one-day pass to any South Dakota State Park, it’s our hope this encourages patients to engage in physical activity in the wonderful park system we have available in our state.”

The park system provides visitors with breathtaking scenery, nature trails and much more, explained Emilie Miller, visitor services coordinator for S.D. Game, Fish & Parks. “Year-round there are activities South Dakotans can enjoy in our parks, from the typical biking, walking and hiking to disc golf, kayaking, canoeing and snowshoeing,” Miller said.

And, if visitors don’t have equipment, many state parks rent or checkout equipment like bikes, canoes, kayaks and snowshoes.

Outdoor wellness centers

The Park Prescription Project was inspired by statistics which show South Dakotans need more physical activity. According to the 2015 Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), only 19.3 percent of South Dakota adults participated in enough aerobic and strength training exercises to meet the guidelines. Additionally, the 2016 BRFSS documents the prevalence of adult obesity at 29.6 percent, and a 2017 South Dakota Department of Health survey showed obesity rates in children ages 5-19 at 16 percent.

“The statistics are not getting any better. I’m amazed at the number of new diabetic patients I diagnose each month,” Thury said.

Diabetes is just one of the many health risks connected to lack of physical activity. And, one of many reasons to get active, said Prosch. She points to research that shows physical activity to be an effective behavior to prevent certain chronic diseases, and in some cases, help treat or monitor others.

“Physical activity decreases an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease and may also serve as a disease management behavior for individuals already diagnosed with cardiovascular disease,” Prosch said. “It can also improve muscular fitness, help prevent falls, assist with weight management and improve cognitive function in older adults.”

Because conversations about weight can be uncomfortable and complex, the Park Prescription Project is designed to help, explained Larissa Skjonsberg, nutrition & physical activity program director for the S.D. Department of Health. “It is really focused on engaging healthcare providers and patients in a discussion about physical activity in a way that is positive and has a bit of an incentive.”

Thury would agree.

“Patients and their friends or family can go to a state park for free and maybe they will fall in love with an activity like hiking,” he said, adding that if patients want more, an annual pass to South Dakota State Parks is only $30. “You can’t get a gym membership to walk on a treadmill for that.”

To learn more about the project, request a prescription pad (healthcare professionals only) or to request outreach to your healthcare provider so they can participate in the project, contact Prosch at nikki.prosch@sdstate.edu or visit http://healthysd.gov/park-rx-prescribe-a-day-in-the-park/. Healthcare professionals can request a prescription pad at healthysd.gov/parkrx-hcp.

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