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Physical activity is set to play a greater role in helping people look after their health and wellbeing following the announcement of a partnership between ukactive, NHS England and Improvement (NHSE/I), Sport England and the National Academy for Social Prescribing to highlight the role of fitness within social prescribing.

A new scheme aims to support people to better manage their health and wellbeing by connecting up social prescribing and fitness and leisure activities in local communities.

ukactive, NHSE/I, Sport England and the National Academy for Social Prescribing will work together to identify an initial pledge of 500,000 hours of activity in the first year of the scheme, and make this available for no cost via the social prescribing services being rolled out across England.

People will need to be referred by a Social Prescribing Link Worker in order to access the scheme and it is expected that up to 100,000 people could benefit from the free gym and leisure sessions.

The commitment, which will be outlined today at the ukactive National Summit, will ensure that the fitness and leisure sector is better integrated within the healthcare system. It is expected that the scheme will be negotiated on a local level, with a national rollout from 1 April 2021, with a number of advanced Primary Care Network sites ready to offer this scheme to local residents in the new year.

Social prescribing helps by connecting people to community support based on what matters to them, and helps to address issues affecting their health and wellbeing. Working alongside GPs, Social Prescribing Link Workers connect people to activities such as fitness groups, swimming, walking, dancing, running, or gardening groups, depending on what the person is most interested in and what will of benefit them.

The new partnership comes at a crucial time – while people have become more aware of the benefits of physical activity for their personal health, physical activity has declined during the pandemic, as shown by recent data from Sport England.

Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said: “Being physically active has never been so important and now is the time to recognise it as a major solution to help reduce the pressure on the NHS and lead people to live healthier, happier lives.

“This partnership is a great opportunity for the fitness sector to play a crucial role in helping the country’s health, with the facilities and highly trained staff ready to partner with the NHS where needed.

“This is a real opportunity to see what is working and what we can replicate to make physical activity part of the solution to improve people’s quality of life.”

James Sanderson, Director, Personalised Care at NHS England, said: “We know taking part in physical and social activities can play an important role in improving someone’s mental and physical health, which is why the Long Term Plan commits to supporting 2.5 million people through personalised care by 2024.

“This offer from ukactive means even more people will be able to access a range of local physical activities to help stay fit and healthy.”

Jo Churchill, Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, said: “I welcome the announcement of this unique partnership between ukactive, NHS England and Improvement and National Academy of Social Prescribing. It is another fantastic step forward in helping people access more personalised care and empowering them to take more control over their health conditions and lives.”

Tim Hollingsworth, Sport England CEO, said: “Healthcare providers are uniquely placed to help introduce people to physical activity as part of a range of efforts to help manage overall health and wellbeing.

“This is why Sport England has been working with partners like NASP to create innovative ways to encourage more social prescribing.

“This new partnership with NHS England will introduce more people to physical activity via free gym sessions and having local fitness facilities to signpost patients to will make it easier for healthcare professionals to build activity into the health plans they are prescribing.”

The landmark partnership will begin by working in several advanced sites within England to identify best practice and learn how to up-scale this approach across England so that it reaches people most at risk of health inequalities. The sites will also explore the potential of small personal health budgets attached to social prescribing.

ukactive will raise awareness of social prescribing and facilitate links with healthcare, demonstrating how its members can best provide local solutions. It will achieve this by highlighting existing best practice to health commissioners and by building sustainable fitness and leisure industry-led physical activity interventions.

The scheme will be delivered and negotiated on locally and will vary from facility to facility. Wave Leisure Trust’s MoveMore initiative in Seaford, East Sussex, is one such example of how this scheme will work. It aims to successfully match a gym activity to suit every individual referred to the programme and support them back to better health.

Delivered in conjunction with local GPs in Seaford, ‘MoveMore’ is already improving people’s health and changing lives for the better by setting up a referral scheme where patients can be seen for a 30-minute consultation regarding their condition and medical history, which also takes into consideration personal barriers, goals and other support needs. Once people have decided on a programme of activity, the team at Wave arranges to meet clients in the leisure centre, where they are taken through the new process.

The national initiative announced today supports NHSE/I’s and the National Social Prescribing Academy’s work to develop the social prescribing infrastructure around the country. Through its recently announced ‘Thriving Communities’ programme, the National Academy of Social Prescribing will work with NHSE/I, Sport England, the Arts Council, Money and Pensions service, Natural England and regional partners, to bring together local partnerships across culture, sport, nature, health and the community sector, to address the wellbeing needs of those most affected by COVID-19.