UK government expected to urge GPs to prescribe cycling on NHS

"Better Health" initiative launched to reduce obesity in response to coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus Lockdown in London, 7 May

The UK government is expected to urge GPs in England to prescribe cycling as part of a major new drive to tackle obesity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Being overweight has been shown to significantly increase the risk of serious illness, or even death, from Covid-19. A suite of new policies aims to tackle this under the government’s new “Better Health” initiative.

A trial for a similar scheme in Yorkshire – run in partnership with Cycling UK – concluded in November 2019. More than 61 per cent of participants in the trial reported their fitness had increased and more than one-third continued to cycle regularly after the 12-week programme had concluded.

Health is a devolved matter in the UK, so the new measures will only cover England.

Similar legislation was introduced in Scotland in 2018, with GPs on Shetland issuing prescriptions for hiking and birdwatching, with time in nature believed to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure.

Likewise, free town bike hire was also trialled by GPs in Cardiff in May 2019, with patients receiving unlimited 30-minute hire sessions for six months.

Cyclist's feet on scales
Encouraging active travel is expected to form a large part of the government’s “Better Health” policy.
Paul Smith Photography

The government will also announce improved access to NHS weight loss services, as well as 12-week plans to improve eating habits. This will include additional self-care apps and online resources for people with obesity-related conditions, such as diabetes.

Banning junk food adverts before the 9pm watershed, ending buy-one-get-one-free deals on foods high in fat, sugar and salt, and introducing calorie labels more widely – including on restaurant menus and alcoholic drinks – are among the measures also set to be introduced.

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Speaking on Saturday to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor John Newton, the director of health improvement at Public Health England, said that being overweight means you’re “more likely to be admitted to hospital, more likely to need treatment on an intensive care unit [and] we also know that it does increase your risk of death”.

BikeRadar’s take | A welcome initiative but where’s the infrastructure?

Anything that gets more butts on bikes is readily welcomed by all of us at BikeRadar. 

To an experienced rider, the pure joy, health benefits of cycling and mental release that getting on a bike brings will seem obvious.

The government is targeting 35 million people with its latest initiative and encouraging them to discover these benefits for themselves can only be a good thing. 

With all of that said, telling people that riding a bike is good for them is only a very small part of actually encouraging cycling as a regular and normalised behaviour.  

According to Cycling UK, around 59 per cent of non-cyclists in Britain feel that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads, so any commitment must be followed by real investment. 

Jenny Box, Cycling UK’s head of development, echoes this sentiment, saying that “Cycling UK has always known cycling can help people with both their physical and mental wellbeing. 

 “If the news reports are true, then Cycling UK would love to be able to bring the gift of cycling… through a ‘cycling prescription’. 

“However, any such initiative also needs to provide these future riders with a safe place to cycle – and that means investment in cycling infrastructure too.”

There was a glimmer of hope back in May when £2bn of active travel funding was announced to “create a new era for cycling and walking”.

However, this money is due to be spread out over five years and is not, in fact, new money, having been previously announced back in February. May’s announcement did include £250m of fast-tracked cash to create emergency infrastructure in response to the coronavirus pandemic, however.

We’re yet to see any specifics about plans for ‘prescription cycling’ – it seems unlikely that the NHS will actually dish out bikes on prescription – but broadening the cycle to work scheme, interest-free loans for e-bikes and subsidising the purchase of new bikes are among the options we’d welcome to ensure everyone in society can take advantage.