More patients across the West Midlands could be given cycling and walking on prescription after a successful pilot showed improvements in participants’ physical and mental health.
The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been handed £98,000 by the Department for Transport to develop a plan to deliver a three-year social prescribing pilot across Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton.
Social prescribing is designed to tackle health inequality by offering patients with certain health conditions living in disadvantaged communities free-to-access cycling and walking activities, such as walking groups, free bikes and cycle training.
A successful initial pilot of the scheme was delivered in Birmingham and the Black Country throughout summer 2021 and saw 79 GPs help over 560 patients through targeted engagement and support designed to meet their individual needs. The latest funding marks the next step to deliver exercise on prescription across the entire West Midlands.
The inspiration behind the West Midlands’ bid to take part in the government pilot is people like Art Gilchrist, 53, from Bordesley Green. Art was put in contact with local link worker Leila Yafai from The Active Wellbeing Society by his GP following an injury suffered before the pandemic. As part of a West Midlands Active Travel Fund project, Art joined a local walking group to help him get active and meet others; his confidence, social skills and mental and physical health improved greatly so he decided to become a volunteer himself to support others.
Cllr Izzi Seccombe, WMCA's Wellbeing Board chair and leader of Warwickshire County Council, said: "As Wellbeing Board, we are working together to address the health inequalities in the region by exploring new and innovative ways to tackle key health issues, including obesity, poor health, inactivity and loneliness.
“A programme like this will not only create opportunities for people to travel actively, build confidence and improve their wellbeing, it will also help connect people to the new walking and cycling routes which will be delivered across the region this year.”
The programme will follow a collaborative approach between health professionals including GPs and link workers, to develop a bespoke programme of activity based on the needs of the local community. When available, patients will be able to join walking or cycling groups at their local practice or community and will be able to connect with others, get active and build confidence.
Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, said: “Last year I witnessed first-hand how this programme can benefit our communities and change lives, and I am keen we now look to roll it out across the whole region.
“Securing this funding is another step forward in making that happen, and I hope that as we develop this initiative we can continue to successfully tackle some of the West Midlands’ underlying health issues and become the first region in the UK to adopt this approach.
“Not only does cycling and walking help to improve people’s mental and physical health, as well as their quality of life more generally, it also helps us in reducing air pollution and tackling the climate emergency.”
Adam Tranter, West Midlands Cycling and Walking Commissioner, said: "I'm really pleased the region has this opportunity to show that the West Midlands can lead the way in innovative programmes to improve our mental and physical health.
“Cycling and walking can be transformative to people's health - and when people lead active lives, it has the potential to reduce strain on our NHS. Our initial pilot showed huge potential and I hope that we can roll this out across the region with additional funding."
The report findings are due to be completed in spring 2022 and will measure results compared to traditional medical interventions. The results will form part of a wider funding bid to make social prescribing available to patients across the whole of the West Midlands in 2023.
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