Prescribing exercise key to defusing ‘ticking mental health time bomb’


New research reveals almost 23 million UK adults* (44 per cent) now experience anxiety symptoms at least once a week, compared to 33 per cent five years ago when the recession first hit. For 20 per cent anxiety is a daily obstacle. The study published by the UK’s largest healthcare charity, Nuffield Health, reveals that early indicators of poor mental health are on the increase. It also reports that GPs are 46 times more likely to prescribe medication than explore medically proven alternative options, like exercise.

The research highlights that almost two fifths (39 per cent) of people now experience low mood, an early indicator of depression, at least once a week, compared to 31 per cent five years ago. Of those with symptoms of either low mood or anxiety, nearly a third(30 per cent) say they can’t cope with everyday life unless they take remedial action and a further 29 per cent (almost 15 million UK adults**) say their low mood or anxiety is so consuming that they struggle to, or cannot, work.

The top three reasons for people suffering from low mood were financial worries (46 per cent), family issues (43 per cent) and problems at work (36 per cent). One in 10 (8 per cent) said ill health affected their mood. When asked about treatment, just one per cent of those visiting their GP were recommended exercise as a way to alleviate symptoms, compared to 46 per cent who were prescribed the most common treatment – medication. However, only four per cent of patients said they would rather be prescribed medication than exercise, if given the choice.

Dr Davina Deniszczyc, Medical Director – Wellbeing, Nuffield Health, said:

“We are faced with a ticking mental health time bomb in the UK.  I see time and again the affects of poor mental health on patients at my GP surgery. To be able to offer workable support, early on when a patient experiences the first signs of mental distress, such as increased anxiety and low mood, may mean preventing a more serious depression taking hold. The compelling evidence that physical activity can play an important role in both treating and alleviating early symptoms of mental ill health isn’t sufficiently filtering through to frontline and primary care services. Nuffield Health is calling for all GPs to treat mental health as they would any other condition that can benefit from treatment with exercise – like chronic heart disease, diabetes and obesity for example. We encourage GPs to prescribe exercise, refer patients to support services that can help them exercise and ensure exercise, when applicable, is a central part of the treatment a patient receives.

“Research from Nuffield Health and the London School of Economics*** earlier in the year, highlighted the potential to reduce the risk of poor mental health by 6 per cent if people regularly participated in sports and exercise. This would in turn save the NHS and Government up to £6.3 billion a year in loss of earnings*, associated treatment and welfare costs. Clearly treatment services and budgets are already squeezed to breaking point in some areas.” 

Research from other organisations, including Mind, the Department of Health, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and the Mental Health Foundation demonstrates that physical activity can reduce anxiety, decrease symptoms of depression and enhance mood****.

Beth Murphy, Head of Information at the mental health charity Mind, said:

“Drugs such as antidepressants can sometimes be the first port of call for health professionals treating anxiety or depression because there are often long waits for talking therapies. However, everyone will respond differently to antidepressants and for some people they may not work or may even bring harmful side effects. Mind has found that people who do regular exercise or take part in ecotherapy activities such as gardening can improve their mental wellbeing and reduce feelings of depression. We urge health professionals to take alternatives such as exercise seriously and consider a range of treatments that offer more choice for individuals.”

The new research shows that despite people knowing the benefits of physical activity for mood and anxiety – 76 per cent of those surveyed say it lifts their mood and 72 per cent report knowing that it has been clinically proven to manage moderate anxiety or low mood – just 17 per cent actually turn to exercise when struck down with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Of the 2,000 people questioned, one fifth (18 per cent) never exercise.

Nuffield Health is calling for all GPs in the UK to take a ‘diagnose, consider exercise, refer, treat’ approach to physical activity when patients present with early signs of mental ill health. In addition, in response to research findings that the most common response to anxiety or low mood is to do nothing (cited by 38 per cent) and that only three in 10 people feel they can discuss symptoms, Nuffield Health is equipping its army of Health Mentors in some of its Fitness and Wellbeing Centres across the UK with Neuro-linguistic Programming training. This will enable them to spot potential problems and use cognitive coaching to have effective conversations about an individual’s wellbeing and how to make small changes in behaviour that can bring about big improvements.

Dr Deniszczyc continued: “You don’t need to suddenly start doing a lot of exercise to make a difference, start small and build up. However, you’ll reap the most benefit if you have tailored support when you start doing physical activities. Finding out what is right for the individual and helping them to progress and stay on track is exactly what Nuffield Health’s Health Mentors and other fitness professionals are there to help you do.”

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