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Exercise – a prescription for the nation's health

Scientists and health professionals continue to extol the benefits of exercise in helping prevent illness. But is the message getting through?


"If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost-effective drugs ever invented." That's the attention-grabbing statement on the NHS Choices website, which goes on to say that keeping fit can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50%.

For many years, doctors and allied health professionals such as physiotherapists have been stressing the importance of regular physical activity to prevent illness and reduce strain on NHS resources. In 2001, the then Health Secretary Alan Milburn piloted a scheme to encourage GPs to prescribe exercise for patients. One of the key objectives of the London Olympics legacy strategy was to encourage more participation in sport. And in 2013, Public Health Minister Anna Soubry announced £5 million of funding to encourage children and adults to exercise more.

However, figures released earlier this year for the period since 2012 showed a drop in the number of people playing sport or exercising at least once a week. In addition, obesity rates continue to rise. Public Health England says that the proportion of adults with a health body mass index (BMI) decreased between 1993 and 2014 from 41% to 32.7% among men and 45% to 40.4% among women.

Regular exercise isn't just good for your body. It's good for your mind too. Research shows that physical activity can boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

One of the major problems is that many people today lead sedentary lifestyles. “Previous generations were active more naturally through work and manual labour, but today we have to find ways of integrating activity into our daily lives,” says Dr Nick Cavill, a public health consultant.

The good news is that getting more exercise doesn't have to involve joining a gym or splashing out on expensive equipment. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has published an Easy Exercise Guide which tells people how they can build simple, effective exercise into their daily routines. Many occupational therapists use home-based exercise programmes to help patients manage long-term conditions such as arthritis. And the NHS Choices website suggests a range of gym-free activities to improve health and fitness.

According to a recent statistical report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, 57% of adults didn't play any sport in the 28 days prior to being surveyed. Public Health England says that by 2050 the cost to the NHS of people being overweight or obese could be almost £10 billion.

Prescribing exercise may not be the answer. But encouraging people to get off their couches and away from their desks for some form of regular physical activity is crucial if we're to avoid a healthcare crisis.

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