2016 Great Outdoors Lab Conference: Recap and What’s Next

Great Outdoors Lab 2016On April 21st, the Sierra Club, Greater Good Science Center, REI, and HipCamp hosted the 2nd Annual Great Outdoors Lab (GO Lab) conference at the Log Cabin in San Francisco with panelists and participants joining us from across the country. Building off of the success of last year’s conference, we heard updates about the progress of different evidence-based research on how the emotion of awe triggers positive physiological and mental health changes when people spend time in nature. This research is critical for institutions, patient care providers, and policy-oriented organizations that are using park prescriptions or similar alternative treatments for a variety of conditions. A panel of practitioners discussed the challenges facing park prescriptions and the obstacles they encountered in getting their peers to engage more broadly with nature as medicine.

Dr. Deborah Cohen, a senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation, kicked off the conference with a keynote that highlighted an exhaustive study on park design and usage. Parks can be an incredibly powerful tool to improve community health, and Dr. Cohen’s research gives practical suggestions for getting more people in parks through programming, advertising, and walking trails.

One key learning from the day came from panelist Dr. Peter Bayley, a research scientist at the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC) at the VA Palo Alto, who discussed the need for promoters of time outside to find or conduct research that is evidenced-based in a high quality, randomized trial of 100 or more participants.

Dr. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Oakland and a firm believer in getting outside, highlighted the recent success of equine therapy practitioners providing enough research to now have their treatment protocols be covered by some insurance programs in California. A major challenge she noted was the lack of malpractice insurance that covers doctors conducting treatment or programs in the outdoors. Given the expertise of outdoor risk management in the room, it seems like this is something we could overcome!

She also addressed the crowd—most whom were outdoor educators, program managers, guides, outdoor brand representatives, or outdoor enthusiasts—about the need for us to move from efficacy studies (i.e., how nature works in a controlled research setting) into translational studies of how time outside works in the real world. She has graciously offered to co-lead a working group that can help the GO Lab and Sierra Club Outdoors make a translational research plan.

Finally, Dr. Razani reminded us that we need to find ways to integrate parks into social services and that access to nature is a human right. She cited a study that nearly one out of five respondents who identified as both hungry and homeless listed access to nature as one of their top three concerns.

Alex Chan of the Clinton Foundation’s Global Health Initiative closed out the day with an overview of the conference and reminded us that health—good or bad—is social, local, and contagious. In the context of time outdoors, that makes total sense—everyone should be able to access parks or open space near their homes and, as they do, they will learn from their families and community members how to take advantage not only of nature nearby, but also of healthy adventures further afield.

The panelists were honest about the challenges that prescribing time outdoors as a healthcare alternative presents; however, there was a clear sense of optimism and excitement, as well as the start of a road map about how to make it all happen. Time outdoors is a necessity for a healthy life, and we know it can be used to support preventative and interventive health care. We’re excited that research, health institutions, and practitioners are all starting to agree!

We look forward to staying in touch with you about further research developments this year and hope to see you at the 3rd Annual Great Outdoors Lab Conference in 2017!

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