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Getting active: the efficacy of exercise referral schemes

By Katie Griffiths, Young People’s Programme Assistant, British Science Association


New research from Northumbria University has suggested that GP-recommended exercise referral schemes may be more beneficial to people over the age of 55, as this group are more likely to complete a programme of exercise.

The study, recently published in the British Medical Journal, followed over 2,000 participants who were referred by their GP for a 24-week programme of exercise.  Exercise referral schemes are funded by the NHS, to encourage patients with a variety of medical conditions, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type-2 diabetes, to increase their activity levels and improve their overall health. However, one of the main problems with the schemes is the poor level of retention. It seems that people just don’t want to hit the gym.

If better uptake can be encouraged however, exercise referral schemes could be of great benefit to the population. Statistics suggest that as people get older, they become less and less active. Studies such as this, which look at the demographics of people who do successfully complete exercise programmes, can provide valuable insights to help healthcare commissioners better understand how to develop and use referral schemes.

In this study, participants were asked to complete a self-reporting questionnaire assessing how often they exercised both before and after their exercise programme. They were referred for a 24-week scheme, during which they were required to attend three one-to-one consultations, and to record their attendance at their leisure centre for up to twice a week. The results showed that on average the participants increased their physical activity by 29 minutes per week, demonstrating the benefits of this type of scheme. However, the results also showed that people over 55 years old were considerably more likely to complete their programme, with 55% of participants in this age category completing the scheme, compared to just 23% of 16-24 year olds. Coral Hanson, one of the study authors, told the British Science Festival that this suggests that in the future we need to look at “how we can do things differently for younger people to help them increase their activity levels”.  

She also suggested that future research should look into the reasons why people do give up on exercise referral programmes, as this will provide further insight to help the NHS and healthcare commissioners to adapt their schemes and deliver programmes that will be of greater benefit to the participants.  And with up to 70% of us in the UK not getting enough exercise, there’s no doubt that this would be a step in the right direction.

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