LONDON >> A new program in Wales will allow family doctors to offer patients an unusual prescription for better health: bicycles.
The pilot program, the first such initiative in Britain, according to the health board that is leading it, reflects an effort by medical professionals around the world to give patients alternatives to drugs, in order to avoid side effects and improve cost efficiency.
Patients at two medical centers in Cardiff, the Welsh capital, will be offered six-month subscriptions to a bike-rental service that allows them to make unlimited free rides of up to 30 minutes at a time, and officials hope to expand the program.
“For the first phase of the pilot, we want to make sure the scheme works as intended and is easy to use for patients and their health professionals, so we’ll be seeking feedback from participants,” Dr. Tom Porter of the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board said in a statement last month. “If the approach proves successful, we’ll look at making it more widely available across the city.”
Recent research supports the idea that exercise can be considered medicinal, and studies have shown its efficiency, comparable to drugs, in treating conditions such as high blood pressure and obesity.
Other initiatives like Exercise in Medicine, by the American College of Sports Medicine, encourage doctors to prescribe exercise as a part of treatment.
The Cardiff program follows a similar effort in Boston, where in 2014 the city made it possible for doctors to prescribe bikes to low-income patients.
Britain introduced an exercise prescription framework in 2001, allowing doctors and nurses to refer patients for supervised physical activity at centers and gyms. More recently, a new course at Loughborough University in England was created to educate exercise scientists, with the goal of getting them the accreditation necessary to issue prescriptions within Britain’s National Health Service.
“If you think about the pharmaceutical industry, it’s designed not necessarily as curative but to treat the symptoms,” Dale Esliger, the leader of the Loughborough program, said in a telephone interview. “And of course the side effects of exercise are generally positive.”
The need for the program is apparent, according to statistics announced this week. The National Health Service said that it had recorded 711,000 hospital admissions related to obesity last year in England, a 15 percent increase compared to the year before.
The British government recommends at least 2-1/2 hours of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity spread across the week. But the National Health Service said that more than 20 percent of men and women in England were classified as inactive, meaning that they engaged in less exercise last year than the minimum amount that is recommended.
Nextbike, the company that provides the bicycle service for patients in Cardiff, provides rentals in many European cities. Mareike Rauchhaus, a spokeswoman for the company, said that it participated in a program called By Bike to Work, which allowed people to claim a prize from their health insurance provider if they cycled to work.
“Whilst we are aware of the many benefits of exercise for our patients, people are sometimes reluctant to engage,” Dr. Karen Pardy, a family doctor who is participating in the program in Cardiff, said in the statement released May 8.
Pardy said she hoped prescriptions would encourage people to “have a go at cycling around Cardiff” and realize how the activity can support their well-being.