So-called ‘social prescriptions’ for activities like cycling and walking will be issued in 11 areas, and the government will give £12.7m to fund pilot projects, such as adult cycling training and free bike loans, in each of the 11 areas over the next three years.
The government stressed that the pilot projects would have to be delivered alongside better infrastructure to ensure people felt safe to cycle and walk.
The BMA welcomed the move but warned that to reduce health inequalities much more investment would be needed over the long term.
Health minister Maria Caulfield said getting active helped to reduce stress and ward off other illnesses such as heart disease and obesity.
She said: ‘The UK is leading the way in embedding social prescribing in our NHS and communities across the country.
‘We’ve already exceeded our target to ensure over 900,000 people are referred to social prescribing schemes by 2023-24 and this pilot will help us identify further schemes to reduce disparities and boost mental and physical wellbeing across the country.'
BMA board of science chair Dr David Strain said: 'Exercise can have significant benefit for both physical and mental health in a multitude of long term conditions, and we have previously raised concerns about the low level of physical activity in the UK, highlighting that the cost of activity and lack of nearby facilities has made the issue far worse for more deprived areas.’
The pilot projects are the latest in a trend towards recommending exercise to help alleviate chronic conditions.
In April advice from NICE said healthcare professionals should support overweight patients with osteoarthritis to ‘choose a weight loss goal to help manage symptoms’ because of evidence that weight loss can ease joint pain.
Meanwhile, a survey published in the British Journal of General Practice found that while a quarter of people say that they would be more active if advised by a nurse or GP, 70-80% of clinicians don’t speak to their patients about exercise.