#Move4Change: How to help your patients to live healthier and exercise more

Article posted on 2nd May 2018

Health and social care

Unhealthy habits are hard to break while healthy ones can be even harder to start.

To help you to get your patients into the right patterns, we’ve spoken to healthcare experts to get their opinion on how – and why – you should help patients to get up and moving.

Getting more people, more active, more often. It’s a theme that’s become a core objective for our current government, and for good reason. With the NHS reporting that 29% of us are spending over six hours per weekday sedentary when outside of work*, too many of us are used to putting up our feet too often.

“Physical activity has a wide range of health benefits – for your mind as well as your body.”

Stephen Buckley, head of information, Mind

What’s clear is that something needs to be done to address this issue. In order to understand what specific actions you can take and the benefits those actions can bring, we’ve gathered together the thoughts and experiences of a range of experts. And since May’s also the home to both Mental Health Awareness Week and World Asthma Day, we’ve focused on how you can support patients living with those conditions too.

Where can you get started?

“Ultimately, it’s the patient’s responsibility to take accountability for their own body and their own health,” points out Dr Shaun O’Hanlon, chief medical officer for EMIS Group. “The role of GPs is to support and coach patients to give them a better understanding of what they can do.”

For Rebecca Livingston, respiratory physiotherapist at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, that means spotting patients’ needs when they come in to your practice. “It’s important for practitioners to ask their patients about their physical activity levels. One way to do this is to ask them to complete the general practice activity questionnaire (GPPAQ),” she explains. “It creates a springboard for GPs to start the conversation around health and fitness, and encourage them to meet the exercise guidelines.”


“I think the role of GP practices supporting health and wellbeing is growing.”

Kay Keane, business manager, Alvanley Family Practice

It’s also useful to present patients with different options that’ll put them on the right path. Shaun recommends that practices do this by “promoting local exercise programmes, classes and wellbeing organisations to really help to coach patients on how to improve their body.” While these external networks are always a good option, there are also programmes that you can run yourself. Kay Keane, business manager at Alvalney Family Practice began a Walking for Health scheme after realising it would benefit both her own fitness and that of patients. It’s meant that “Patients of any fitness ability can come and walk for 30 minutes at lunch time. We cover a mile – around 2,000 steps!”

Alvanley’s programme shows that it’s important to consider not just what will work for patients, but what will work for your practice too. As Kay further explains, “We can’t afford to pay for all the medication and we can’t keep up with demand from our patients. In order for us to provide for all of our 5,200 patients, we decided to start looking outside of the practice and think about other things we could do in our community to support their health journey.”


How does activity impact on patients?

When it comes down to the stats, there are some amazing benefits that can be realised by getting your patients moving. As Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind points out, “When you’re active your body is working more, which is good for your organs. For example, a stronger heart will help you to have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure.”


*taken from Mind research.

The all-round bonuses of a more active lifestyle also extend to healthier weight, healthier bones and better sleep at night. And if that isn’t enough, Stephen explains how, “As we become fitter, our bodies can regulate our cortisol levels. Over prolonged periods, higher cortisol levels have been linked to a wide range of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure and a lowered immune response.”

What activities can you recommend to patients with asthma?


“Finding a type of exercise that motivates you to do it regularly is really important. Exercise improves quality of life.”

Rebecca Livingston, respiratory physiotherapist, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

At first appearance, helping patients with asthma to get more active can look like a challenging proposition. “If you are suffering from a chronic health condition, it can be difficult to know which sport or activity to try,” notes Dr Sarah Jarvis, clinical director at Patient.info. “It’s natural to have concerns about certain types of exercise exacerbating existing health problems.” But while your patients with asthma may be worried, there are actually plenty of exercises that doctors would recommend they take part in:

*patient.info research

As Dr Andy Whittamore explained to Patient.info, “If people are looking after their asthma well and their symptoms are under control, they should be able to enjoy any type of exercise. If a person’s asthma is not under control, they’re new to exercise or haven’t done any in a while, it might be best to start with less intense aerobic activities such as yoga or walking.”

How is exercise beneficial to patients with asthma?

Patients who take part in these activities could see not just an improvement to their overall health, but an improvement to their condition too. Rebecca explains how “Inactivity can cause patients to lose their fitness levels, muscle bulk and experience more breathlessness, which can trigger their asthma symptoms. So, encouraging them to keep active is important in managing their condition.”


“People who are more active are more likely to have their asthma under control.”

Rebecca Livingston, respiratory physiotherapist, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

As an added bonus, taking part in healthy activities can help asthma patients to have a better outlook on their illness. “Severe asthma can link to anxiety and depression, as with any long-term condition” continues Rebecca. “Exercise can help with this.”


*survey by Asthma UK

What exercises can patients with mental health conditions take part in?

One of the biggest takeaways that we got from speaking to experts on this topic is that, by recommending activities that are fun or social, you can really help those with mental health conditions to stay committed to a healthier lifestyle. As Stephen explains, “Being round other people is good for our mental health and social networks – plus, you can maximise the benefits of exercising by doing it with other people.”

“Lots of us enjoy being active because it’s fun. If you enjoy an activity, you’re also more likely to keep doing it.”

Stephen Buckley, head of information, Mind

There’s also a consensus that almost any exercise is going to be beneficial to your patients. In fact, there’s a pretty wide spread of activities that doctors endorse:

*patient.info research

How does activity help patients with mental health conditions?   

“There’s strong evidence that a healthy body supports a healthy mind,” mentions Shaun. “That’s for minor mental health conditions such as phobias and anxiety, and the more significant ones like depression and bipolar disorder.”

*Mind research

At least part of this improvement to mental health can be put down to how endorphins are released when we exercise. “Sometimes called ‘feel good’ hormones,” explains Stephen, these change our brain chemistry to help “calm anxiety and lift your mood.” This is something that can be particularly useful for those who have trouble gaining clarity. “Some people find that exercise helps to break up racing thoughts. As your body tires, so does your mind, leaving you calmer and better able to think clearly,” continues Stephen.


“A healthy body keeps the mind fit.”

Dr Shaun O’Hanlon, chief medical officer, EMIS Group

Going beyond these immediate improvements, there are also many long-term benefits to be had. Stephen points out that “When you start to see your fitness levels increase and your body improve, it can give your self-esteem a big boost. Improved self-esteem also has a protective effect that increases life satisfaction and can make you more resilient to feeling stressed.”

Now’s the time to get going

With so many benefits for so many different kinds of patients, exercise is only going to lead to good things. While patients have to take charge of their own health, as a healthcare professional, you sit in the perfect position to encourage and inform those in your care. That way, your patients will be able to achieve lasting change and really get to grips with just how beneficial a good level of fitness can be to their health.

*Health Survey for England 2016: Physical activity in adults

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