Could GPs soon be writing a prescription for a walk?

Council leaders are urging GPs to prescribe outdoor exercise to reduce obesity.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils, is calling for England and Wales to adopt a similar model to the so-called ‘green prescription’ in New Zealand that gets people outdoors.

In New Zealand, where the scheme has been running since 1998, eight out of every 10 GPs have issued green prescriptions to patients. These are forwarded to a patient support person who encourages the patient to be more active through phone calls, face to face meetings or a support group. Progress is then reported back to the GP.

A recent survey of patients given green prescriptions in the country found that 72 per cent noticed positive changes to their health, 67 per cent improved their diet and more than half felt stronger and fitter.

Rather than just issuing prescriptions for medicines, the LGA says that if GPs in England and Wales wrote down moderate physical activity goals, it would benefit patients who are obese or overweight. These could be outdoor walks, activities in parks, or family exercise classes run by the local council.

Some GPs are already taking part in schemes to get patients exercising and enjoying the great outdoors, such as in Dartmoor and Exmoor. Councils, which have responsibility for public health, want to see the measures rolled out nationwide.

The latest guidelines for health professionals say that one in four patients would exercise more if advised to do so by a GP or nurse. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that a green prescription can improve a patient’s quality of life over 12 months and help people live longer, healthier lives.

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Not every visit to a GP is necessarily a medical one. By writing formal prescriptions for exercise, it would encourage people to do more physical activity.

“There are some instances where rather than prescribing a pill, advising on some type of moderate physical activity outdoors could be far more beneficial to the patient. This could be going on organised walks, conservation work with a local park group, or gardening at home.

“The green prescription model is something that could help to tackle major health conditions such as obesity and diabetes. There are already some good examples of where this is being piloted in the UK, and it’s something we should consider on a nationwide basis.”

The report follows on from one issued earlier this year by The Kings Fund which talked about the benefits of being in gardens. As well as the obvious physical benefits of exercise, this report also suggested that being outdoors could help improve people’s mental well-being.

Steven Ward, executive director at ukactive, said: “Britain is in the grip of a cradle to grave physical inactivity crisis and the great outdoors is a fantastic gateway for getting people moving again. Physical activity has been hailed as a miracle cure which can help to treat and prevent more than 20 lifestyle-related diseases and, if GPs were to prescribe this, it would bring huge benefits to people’s physical and mental health.”

The LGA highlighted some successful examples of GPs who are already prescribing outdoor activity:

Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities

Green prescription-type pilots have been trialled in Devon and Somerset. A three-year scheme is under way where GPs are encouraging patients to visit the national parks as part of their treatment or as an alternative to medication. Surgeries provide Walking for Health Packs to promote walking in the outdoors. If successful, the scheme could be rolled out to national parks elsewhere.

Dorset

Weymouth and Portland Borough Council is part of the Natural Choices group, which runs activities for GPs to refer patients to. These include walks, conservation work, gardening and sailing. The programme is part of Live Well Dorset, commissioned by Public Health Dorset.

Liverpool
Liverpool City Council and Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group are delivering a £2.9 million Liverpool Active City Strategy which includes GP referral schemes and activities in parks to tackle obesity and improve people’s health and well-being.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until you see your GP to start enjoying countryside walks. NHS Choices is just one of many organisations that offer advice on getting started and most areas will have walking groups if you don’t fancy venturing out alone.

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