Health professionals such as nurses need to spend more time highlighting the benefits of exercise in promoting all-round health and wellbeing, according to an influential group of MPs.
The cross-party health select committee said physical activity should be made a priority in its own right and not simply viewed as a way of tackling obesity.
The committee has today published the findings of an investigation into the impact of diet and exercise on the nation’s health.
“The extraordinary benefits of exercise in improving physical and mental health should be made clear and accessible to everyone, whatever their current level of fitness,” said committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston.
“The extraordinary benefits of exercise in improving physical and mental health should be made clear”
Clinicians, such as practice nurses, have a “crucial role to play in promoting physical activity” and this must be reflected in training, according to the committee’s report titled The Impact Of Physical Activity And Diet On Health.
It stated that discussing weight and exercise should not be “off limits” during clinical consultations, citing guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.
“NICE has clearly recommended that offering brief advice in a primary care setting is a cost effective way of getting people to increase their levels of physical activity,” said the report.
“Better undergraduate and postgraduate education is now required both to ensure clinicians’ understanding of the medical benefits of physical activity, and to teach them how to promote physical activity to their patients in an effective way, particularly when some patients may be sceptical of such a ‘low tech’ approach,” it said.
Overall, the committee concluded that the NHS and councils must do more to tackle the “avoidable harm” caused by poor diet and inactivity, and called for cross-government action.
“We strongly agree with the notion that the NHS should lead by example on the issue of promoting physical activity”
It was vital to maintain prevention and health promotion work amid fears these could suffer due to the financial pressures on local authorities, which have recently been made responsible for public health, it said.
It also hit out at the increased use of weight loss surgery to tackle obesity, instead calling for more funding for healthy lifestyle schemes that have been proven to work.
“It is inexplicable and unacceptable that the NHS is now spending more on bariatric surgery for obesity than on a national roll-out of intensive lifestyle intervention programmes that were first show to cut obesity and diabetes over a decade ago,” said the report.
In addition, the committee was critical of NHS efforts to promote healthy lifestyles among its own staff.
It stated that the health service should “lead by example” by serving healthy food and promoting fitness at work.
Professor John Wass, academic vice president and public health lead at the Royal College of Physicians, said: “As highlighted recently in our own work on NHS staff wellbeing, we strongly agree with the notion that the NHS should lead by example on the issue of promoting physical activity.
“However, this seems a long way off, as only 28% of NHS trusts have a plan or policy in place reduce obesity among staff,” he warned.
Professor Wass added that one way to improve services on the ground would be to introduce special localised teams.
“These would be led by a clinician with an interest in weight and weight management and would to provide advice and guidance to patients within the hospital,” he said.
Barbara Young, chief executive of Diabetes UK, said health improvement would require the next government to “translate” the committee’s recommendations “into action” at all levels – from restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, to investment in public spaces to encourage physical activity.
“These actions can make a real and lasting difference to the lives of millions of people throughout the country and help prevent type 2 diabetes,” she said.