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Government set to enable GPs to prescribe cycling to tackle obesity and coronavirus (+ video)

Move revealed by government sources over the weekend - here's how a pilot scheme in West Yorkshire benefited patients...

We’re expecting a major announcement from the government about cycling in England outlining a number of initiatives – one of those being allowing doctors across England to prescribe bikes to patients. A previous trial of such a scheme in West Yorkshire shows how it could work in practice, and the benefits it can bring.

With obesity being a risk factor for contracting the coronavirus, a number of newspapers yesterday reported that according to government sources, a national scheme is being introduced in England that will enable GPs across the country prescribe certain patients with exercise including cycling.

Commenting on those reports, British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman said: “Cycling is the miracle cure we discovered years ago. It treats obesity, a hundred inactivity-related diseases, air pollution and mental ill-health, and it helps the young and the elderly stay mobile.

“From HSBC UK-British Cycling research, we know that 14 million of us would like to cycle more often. So let’s make space on our roads and streets and give more people the chance to choose cycling.”

However, there was no specific mention of the scheme in a policy paper published this morning on the Department of Health’s website.

The department said in an accompanying press release covering a wide range of interventions aimed at tackling obesity as well as COVID-19 that “GPs will also be encouraged to prescribe exercise and more social activities to help people keep fit.”

We do have an idea of what form that might take when it comes to cycling, however, as well as the benefits it can bring.

Last November, we reported how a scheme enabling people with long-term health conditions to be prescribed a 12-week cycle training course could be rolled out across England after a successful pilot in West Yorkshire.

> Cycling on prescription could go nationwide after successful West Yorkshire trial (+ video)

Introduced in 2015, more than 1,000 patients were referred to Cycle for Health scheme by GP surgeries, hospitals, clinical commissioning groups and mental health charities.

The initiative was delivered by Cycling UK in partnership with West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) and formed part of the latter’s CityConnect scheme.

Cycling UK said that participants in the scheme during the latest 12 months “showed considerable improvements in mental wellbeing, with people reporting a 32 per cent increase in confidence, a 29 per cent increase in feeling close to others and a 26 per cent increase in feeling relaxed.”

Tom Murray, Cycling UK Senior Project Officer, commented: “The feedback from people who’ve been on the scheme is overwhelmingly positive, and over the course of 12 weeks we can see huge improvements in both their physical and mental health.

“It doesn’t matter if they could ride a bike before they came to us, our programme teaches them all sorts of skills from learning to ride through to going out in groups, using hand signals, checking for traffic and road positioning. And the confidence that gives them is very often life changing.”

Councillor Kim Groves, chair of WYCA’s transport committee, said: “We often hear cycling described as a ‘magic pill’ or ‘miracle pill’, something that can help make people happier and healthier, live longer and cut public health costs, followed by questions about why it’s not being prescribed to the nation.

“Our Cycle for Health scheme is leading the way and this demonstrates the scale of our ambition, not only in encouraging more people to travel by bike, but also ensuring our residents are given the tools they need to lead happier, healthier lives.

“What’s more, over a third (42 per cent) of the people who’ve taken part in the scheme during the past year live in some of the most disadvantaged areas in the country*, proving schemes like this are helping tackle health inequalities where it matters most.” 

Trials of the scheme were also held in London, Manchester and Wales, with Cycling UK saying that it hoped it could be extended nationwide – something that, for England at least, seems set to happen.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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