RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Pediatricians are on the front lines in the battle against childhood obesity. It's a challenge for them to get kids to eat healthy foods or spend more time outside playing. But NPR's Sam Sanders found one doctor in Washington, D.C. who has taken to prescribing the great outdoors.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Pediatrician Robert Zarr says about 40 percent of his young patients are overweight or obese. One day last year, Zarr wanted to find a way to get one of his young patients outside more to help with her weight.
ROBERT ZARR: She has to take a bus to the train, then a train to another bus and then that bus to her school.
SANDERS: Dr. Zarr wrote her a prescription for a modified bus route to school.
ZARR: That one read, walk the remaining four blocks on the second bus on your route to school from home every day.
KELSEY AGUILAR: He told me about the four blocks and I told him it was a 40 minute walk and I was too lazy.
SANDERS: That's 13-year-old Kelsey Aguilar. She says at the first, she wasn't feeling the route change.
AGUILAR: I was thinking, am I really doing this? I'm going to be late for school.
SANDERS: Were you late for school?
AGUILAR: No, I was 10 minutes early.
SANDERS: Kelsey's kept up the walking. And Dr. Zarr said she's moved from obese to just overweight, which is very good. This micro-targeting of physical activity - tweaking Kelsey's specific school route - is something Zarr does a lot for his patients. And now Zarr says he might prescribe even more outdoor activity for Kelsey through a prescription for a park.
ZARR: For the last three years, I've been working on developing a way in which I and my colleagues can easily prescribe parks.
SANDERS: Lots of parks all over the District of Columbia.
ZARR: So what I have done is gone about mapping out all of the parks in D.C.
SANDERS: How many is that?
ZARR: So far now we have 380 parks.
SANDERS: All of them mapped and rated. Zarr did it with help - Public health students at George Washington University, Park Rangers, other doctors.
ZARR: And this is cool. I just love seeing people doing things in parks.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
ZARR: I mean, here she is jump roping - this lady next to me.
SANDERS: Zarr, standing in one of the parks in that data base - Meridian Hill park - talked about the rating system, which takes a lot into account.
ZARR: How to get there - parking - is parking available if someone's going to drive - bike racks - there's a section on pets - park safety. So we ask about lighting.
SANDERS: Zarr writes his park prescriptions on a special prescription pad in English and Spanish with the words RX for outdoor activity on top and a schedule slot that asks - when and where will you play outside this week? He says the program is not just about the parks. It's about what the patients want too.
ZARR: I like to listen and find out what it is my patients like to do and then gauge the parks I prescribe based on their interests, based on their schedule, based on the things they're willing to do.
SANDERS: There are other park prescription projects getting started across the country, in New Mexico, California, Oregon. Author Richard Louv wrote a book called "Last Child In The Woods." It actually inspired Dr. Zarr to start his park prescription project. Louv says programs like Zarr's carry a lot of weight because when doctors talk, parents listen.
RICHARD LOUV: Pediatricians can play a huge role and that's why doctors are - among others - is so important because they are so trusted by parents.
SANDERS: So doctors prescribing parks - good idea all around, right? But not every park is safe, especially in the district. The neighborhood next to one of the parks Dr. Zarr has spoken with Kelsey about, Kingman Island, had 30 incidences of violent crime over the last year. But Zarr says parks will only get safer with use.
ZARR: The more parks are used, the more people are there, the safer and the better they are. So we want people first and foremost to be safe, to be active and to be part of the solution to fixing parks that aren't quite what they should be.
SANDERS: Ultimately, Zarr says he wants his parks database to exist in an app on your smartphone. And one day he'd like to be out to track his patient's activity in parks, to find out exactly how much good a little green space can do. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
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