Ian McCall: Will GPs soon be writing prescriptions for short walks?

As the Scottish Parliament holds their inquiry on social prescribing of physical activity, our Senior Policy Officer Ian McCall gives our response to this preventative approach and explains the importance of walking to this public health agenda.

A health professional talks to walkers at Barns Medical Practice in Ayr
Walkers leaving Barns Medical Practice in Ayr

How would you feel if you left the health centre with a prescription for regular walks with a local group rather than a prescription for a drug? It’s something that may well become increasingly common.

The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee has asked for views on prescribing physical activity for wellbeing. This is an area of work Paths for All has been involved in, and promoted, for some time. We are happy to share what we’ve learnt.

Our last annual Expert Lecture focussed on Social prescribing to get Scotland active. and we are involved in a range of relevant projects which are informing our views on what works.

We believe that there should be a change in the balance of resources going into health care. We need to be treated when we become ill, but we also should aim to keep as well as possible for as long as possible. A greater emphasis on enhancing people’s wellbeing moves health care beyond hospitals and health centres and into the community. 

This preventative approach, as advocated by the Christie Commission in 2011, involves everything from the way we plan our communities and transport ourselves to how we live our daily lives. Social prescribing can be a part of this. We believe more resources should be given to community interventions which promote physical, mental and social health.  A good example of this is Paths for All’s Health Walks programme, but there are many others. 

Our Scottish Health Walk Network supports community projects all over Scotland that organise free group walks every week. Health Walks are aimed at inactive people who would benefit most from doing more physical activity. This can include people who haven’t been active for a while and would like to start again, people recovering from ill health or who are managing a long-term condition and anyone who’s been told by a health professional that they would benefit from being more active. 

Community Link Workers can play an important role here as they have time to devote to this that health professionals may not be able to offer, and they can develop a good knowledge of opportunities locally. Our previous experience of referral to health walks has suggested that GPs may not have the time or information to signpost people in this way. 

Walking has been described as ‘A best buy for public and planetary health’. We think its inclusion in the delivery of physical activity social prescribing information is vital.

There may be issues over how receptive people are to physical activity referral – there is a danger of appearing to “talk at” people rather than supporting them in finding what they need. Walking has an important role here. For people who see activity or sport as being “not for them”, walking can be suggested as it’s the most accessible activity and one they can start gradually without equipment or special clothing.

Walking is important in tackling inequalities faced in many communities in Scotland. Participation in sport varies by age, gender, area deprivation and household income, but when we include walking for recreation, these participation gaps narrow. This is evidenced in the 2017 Scottish Household Survey.

The evidence base is growing as social prescribing of physical activity is explored – but it does need more resources and attention so we can develop something that we know will work, which health professionals have faith in, and which is sustainable.

You can help to shape the development of this topic. The Scottish Parliament’s inquiry on ‘social prescribing’ as way to improve health and wellbeing of the nation closes on 30th August.


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