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Health

Tango and Yoga... on prescription

You'd be surprised what your GP might recommend these days. David Hughes investigates social prescribing

Imagine going to your GP and coming out with a prescription for a yoga class, ballroom dancing and a range of nature walks. Such an outcome might not be so far fetched in the near future and, for many people, might be just what's needed to supplement more conventional treatment. 

What brings someone to their GP may not be a strictly medical issue. The underlying problem may be debt; it may be loneliness; it may be poor housing. And there's no tablet for any of those. 

'Social prescribing', as it's known, is a move to identify and promote broader reasons for wellbeing, rather than focus on illness itself. Initial studies suggest that non-medical interventions have the power to significantly improve health, and cut GP visits by up to a quarter- benefiting both us and the hard-pressed NHS. 

Recently, Prince Charles has be quoted singing the praises of yoga classes as a means to improve health and ease pressure on the health services, with the NHS pledging long-term funds for yoga classes as part of its social prescribing plans. Studies have suggested yoga can help with such conditions as back pain and arthritis, as well as reducing high blood pressure.

Classes of all types- be they ballroom dancing or yoga- also ave the benefit of social contact. People have conversations, make friends with shared interests and activities- and a lack of social contact is often the reason why people end up seeing a GP in the first place, particularly in older age groups. The government estimated that 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, and says that many GPs see up to five people a day suffering from loneliness.

Other highly beneficial health activities include simply walking in nature ('eco-therapy') wither alone or as an organised group. There's evidence that spending as little as 90 minutes outside in nature reduces blood pressure and anxiety, increases happiness, and boosts the immune system. Many GPs, and other health professionals, recognise this- and social prescribing has grown over the past decade out of a desire by pioneering health surgeries to put people in touch with such wellbeing opportunities, and, where necessary, to fund them. 

Last autumn it was announced that ten GP surgeries in the Shetlands would begin prescribing birdwatching, rambling and beach walks, in addition to conventional treatment. Patients will be given calendars and lists drawn up buy the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds showing them different bird species and suitable walking routes. 

"We very much like to involve people in their own health, and people really like being empowered," said Dr Chloe Evans, who piloted the programme at the Acalloway health centre. 

In control

Empowerment, and confidence building, is a recurring theme in successful social prescribing schemes. Participants feel more in control of their health they are choosing which activities they would like to engage in and when, and moving away from feelings of isolation or loneliness. 

In Halton on Merseyside, GPs offer hardening, Nordic walking and tango dancing on prescription, along with confidence classes and stress management.

Prevention

With an ageing population, anything that will reduce the burden on already overstretched NHS resources will be most welcome- and leading health officials are turning to social prescribing as a valuable preventative strategy. 

"The evidence increasingly shows that activities like social clubs, art, ballroom dancing and gardening can be more effective than medicines for some people and I want to see an increase in that sort of social prescribing," Health Secretary Matt Hancock told and NHS conference in Manchester last autumn. The view was endorsed at the same conference by Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.

She said: "Often the underlying reason for a patient visiting their GP is not medical, despite their initial complaints seeming to be of a physical nature, and in some of these cases 'social prescribing; can be more beneficial for a patient than prescribing them medication or other conventional treatment."

Now if only my GP would fund a trip to Tenerife...

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