Montana: On a Path to Better Health Through Trail Prescriptions
Wellness happens step-by-step in Missoula, Montana. Instead of relying solely on the prescription pad, more of Missoula’s health-care community is recommending movement on Missoula’s Rx Trails to improve everything from back pain to depression.
With the support of Missoula County Parks and Trails, Let’s Move! Missoula, Montana State Parks, BikeWalk Montana, Community Medical Center and several other health-focused organizations, the McCormick Park trail and Fort Missoula Regional Park trail system were designated in 2013 as local prescription trails.
The goal of the program is to connect health care with outdoor exercise. And it certainly helps that “our two major hospitals are adjacent to the two trails,” said Meg Whicher, Missoula Parks and Trails recreation program manager. During awareness-raising events, participants can “walk with a doc” to learn about the health benefits of walking.
“It really is the simple stuff that is the best for us,” explained physical therapist Mike Tran. “If I can get someone to adopt a lifelong walking program, it can transform [that person’s] life. I would say for me personally, I use active exercise as my number one treatment, hands down.”
The specified “prescriptions” are between 0.3 and 2.5 miles, and are relatively flat, demonstrating that participants don’t have to climb Mount Everest to make a positive impact on their health.
“The best exercise is what we’re going to do and what we’ll do regularly,” Tran added, pointing out that he had a patient who lived next to the trails, yet could only walk a few hundred yards to start. It didn’t matter. These small steps led to a healthier lifestyle.
“There’s so much research that shows how many benefits walking has,” enthused Peggy Schmidt, program coordinator for Let’s Move! Missoula. “In my personal life, walking and exercise are going to be a whole lot better than a package of pills.”
Tran noted that even with physical therapy where specific exercises—say core moves to improve an injured back—are recommended, they focus on one aspect of the problem. Walking not only improves core strength, but it also aids cardio ability, strengthens the legs and boosts mental health. “Getting out and walking more can give you 10 benefits instead of just one,” he said, noting that when researchers look at populations throughout the world renowned for longevity, the key factor is walking.
Walking Missoula’s Rx Trails also connects people with the community, a particularly important aspect during the pandemic. Ben Weiss, a board member for BikeWalk Montana, explained that the established “network of neighborhood greenways” here works as a remedy for more people looking for ways to be outside. And using routes along low-speed neighborhood streets—some of which connect with the Riverfront Trail system adjacent to the McCormick Trail—allows for greater access to the entire area.
Missoula’s Rx Trails offer nice features and are accessible year-round; the McCormick Trail encircles a fishing pond, sports facilities and an aquatics center, while the Fort Missoula trails provide places to enjoy nature and history. In 2018, AARP awarded the Missoula Rx Trail program a $10,000 grant for new signage, mile markers, benches and new maps to improve the experience.
With beautiful scenery and an ever-increasing number of trails, walking for health makes sense in Montana. Besides the Missoula Rx Trails, Bozeman, Great Falls, Miles City and multiple trails in the Bitterroot Valley are all offering similar programs. And as tangible benefits are realized, more towns are coordinating with health professionals to designate more prescription trails and encourage more people to utilize them as a path to health. The best part is that it only requires one step at a time. Learn more about Missoula’s Rx Trails here.
Missoula’s McCormick Park
Missoula’s McCormick Park is located just a block from the Milwaukee Trail, which is part of the Great American Rail-Trail™, a 3,700-mile route linking trails between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.