GPs should prescribe exercise to tackle obesity, say local authorities

GPs should prescribe walks, activities in parks and family exercise classes to improve the health and fitness of obese or overweight patients, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.

The UK should adopt a model similar to a 'green prescription' scheme operating in New Zealand, where eight out of 10 GPs have referred patients to exercise schemes that have helped more than half of patients improve their fitness, diet and overall health, the LGA says.

GP leaders backed calls for exercise on prescription, but warned that social prescribing or exercise schemes must not strip funding from core general practice or be imposed on overstretched GPs without additional resources.

Calls for the exercise prescription scheme come less than a week after MPs on the House of Commons health select committee warned of a 'growing mismatch' between funding for public health and the importance attached to it in national policy documents. The committee warned that after cuts to their funding, local authorities were at the limit of savings they could achieve on public health without undermining services.

GP referral

LGA community wellbeing board chair councillor Izzi Seccombe 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 where this is being piloted in the UK, and it is something we should consider on a nationwide basis.'

RCGP spokesman Dr Steve Mowle said: 'Social prescribing schemes can certainly be beneficial to a patient’s overall health and wellbeing – as some pilots have shown – but to be effective, there needs to be better integration between health and community services, so that GPs and our teams can signpost our patients most appropriately.

Social prescribing

'However, any decision to invest in social prescribing schemes, and roll them out more widely, must not be an alternative to investing in our general practice service. GPs and our teams make 90% NHS patient contacts for little over 8% of the overall budget, and this disconnect must be addressed.

'Likewise, while GPs and our teams are under such intense resource and workforce pressures,  any extra workload that social prescribing schemes might bring cannot simply fall to GPs without being matched with the appropriate resources.'

Exercise prescription schemes are operating or have been piloted in Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Liverpool and Yorkshire. Some schemes allow GPs to book patients directly into exercise schemes at local leisure centres, or to connect patients with walking groups, sailing clubs and other activities.

Photo: iStock

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