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We GPs need to walk the walk to get our patients active

Dr david turner duo 3x2

One You is the latest idea to be piloted by Public Health England in an attempt to get the population more active.

It involves GPs giving patients an ‘exercise prescription’ – not a totally new idea in itself, but the advice we give is supposed to be more tailored to the individual patient.

So we prescribe exercise for a specific condition and in specific ‘doses’ for example: ‘I recommend you should get moving for at least 10 minutes a day to improve your diabetic control.’

There is no doubt the UK is a lazy nation. Shockingly, on average, we Brits exercise even less than Americans. There is also now strong scientific evidence to show that exercise independently reduces the risk of cancer and a lot of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

We should try to make cycling and walking the norm for short journeys

While I applaud any attempt to make the population move a bit more I can’t help thinking this is yet again asking GPs to sit at the top of the iceberg of inactivity chipping fragments off with cheap tea spoons.

Like the 5p plastic bag charge, which changed the nation’s behaviour overnight, we need radical government action if we really want to make the population more active.

GPs giving out brief advice at the end of already packed 10-minute consultation is like micturating into a hurricane. What could central government do instead? Well if we look at The Netherlands, which has one of the most active populations in Europe and where people are generally healthier than us, we see they have an infrastructure that positively encourages walking and cycling and a culture where riding a bike is seen as ‘normal’. Restricting car access to town and city centres, proper cycle lanes and priority lights for cyclists at junctions would be a start.

I’m a realist and I don’t expect every UK city to become like Amsterdam overnight, but we should try to make cycling and walking the norm for short journeys and taking the car a last resort.

As someone who has walked or cycled to work most of my career I am very much aware that not using a car to go everywhere is still seen by many to be at best eccentric and at worst as weird. We need to challenge this and normalise cycling by riding in everyday clothes on ordinary-looking bikes to the shops.

The lycra-clad fanatics on carbon fibre frame bikes unfortunately do not help to make cycling attractive to the unfit majority. So yet again making myself unpopular with my colleagues, I’m going to suggest we try to walk, run or cycle to our surgeries more, only taking the car on days we’re doing visits – and leaving our bikes, trainers and outdoor clothes in our rooms for patients to see.

Let’s educate the population that non-motorised self-propulsion can and should be totally normal by example. Do what I do, not just what I say could be our new maxim?

Dr David Turner is a GP in north west London


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