Some GPs in England will begin prescribing physical activities such as walking and cycling to help patients with their mental and physical wellbeing.
It is hoped that the scheme, which is being trialled in 11 local authorities, will reduce the burden on the NHS through social prescribing – which is essentially when patients are prescribed non-medical activities like reading or exercising to deal with health problems.
With £12.7 million of funding, GPs will offer walking groups, free bike loans, cycling taster days and exercising mental health groups. For wheelchair or mobility scooter users, prescriptions will also include wheeling.
Health minister Maria Caulfield lauded the scheme, saying: ‘Getting active is hugely beneficial for both our mental and physical health, helping reduce stress and ward off other illness such as heart disease and obesity.
‘The UK is leading the way in embedding social prescribing in our NHS and communities across the country.’
How does exercise benefit mental health?
The benefits of exercise on mental wellbeing are well-documented, and cannot be overstated.
One study found that exercise can reduce the chance of depression by up to 30%, reduce symptoms of anxiety and boost self esteem and body image.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), around 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic exercise three times per week can help people with depression, as long as it’s kept up for 10 to 14 weeks.
This is because exercise ‘creates blood flow to areas of the brain that impact emotion regulation and our stress response and memory formation,’ explains psychologist Gemma Harris.
It also reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol, and increases endorphins, serotonin and norepinephrine as well as dopamine, the feel-good hormone.
‘A further mechanism for improved mental health is thought to be self-efficacy, distraction and social interaction,’ Gemma continues.
‘We might even consider exercise as creating a domino effect on other aspects of functioning that improve wellbeing, for example, leading to better sleep, body image, increased energy levels, greater confidence in coping and improved sense of self.’
Does the policy go far enough for mental health?
While it’s undeniably positive that the government is recognising the vast benefits of physical activity on mental wellbeing, it’s important to note that, for many people suffering with moderate to severe mental health issues, exercise should be part of a more comprehensive approach to treatment.
Although mental health campaigners welcome the strategy, they believe more needs to be done to help people access the support they need.
‘We welcome this extra investment enabling the NHS to try new ways of supporting mental health, such as through social prescribing schemes,’ says Paul Farmer, the chief executive at mental health charity Mind.
‘Physical and mental health are closely linked and there’s good evidence that getting physically active can have real benefits for our mental wellbeing.’
However, he adds: ‘It’s important to remember that prescribing exercise is not a miracle cure for treating mental health problems.
‘This scheme needs to be one part of a toolbox of options that GPs consider when someone asks for support with their mental health, alongside other treatments such as talking therapies and medication.
‘People with mental health problems are all different, and what helps one person won’t necessarily work for another.’
Gemma adds that, while exercise can have an immediate impact on mood and wellbeing, some of the benefits may come from a more sustained commitment to exercise ‘which may not be easy’ for people already struggling with mental illness.
‘Where individuals are struggling with complex or intense mental health challenges, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, addiction etc, then seeking professional support is essential,’ she says.
However, accessible mental health services in this country are sorely lacking.
Last year, a survey of 2,000 people by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) found that 57% of people who thought about seeking mental health support found considerable barriers in accessing services, while NHS England data last week showed that the number of people on mental health waiting lists were up.
It found that the service failed on its goal of getting 1.6 million patients into talking therapy services, with only 1.2 million starting sessions last year.
Paul, from Mind, said that the latest scheme needs to be ‘part of a more joined up approach to helping people access support.’
He says: ‘What we urgently need to see is proper investment into our country’s mental health services.
‘Only that will enable us to deliver support to the 1.6 million people currently sat on waiting lists, and the eight million people who would benefit from mental health support right now but are deemed by the system not to be unwell enough to access it.’
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