Medical Referral to an Exercise Program Provides Health Benefits
Physician referred exercise programs are not a new concept. They have the potential to better integrate healthcare with prevention and wellness services in a way that promotes positive behavior change and improved health outcomes for patients. However, physician, community, and government support are all important to the success of such programs. A study published in the European Journal of General Practice looked at the feasibility of a medically referred exercise program in Murcia, Spain.
The program involved a few key components:
- Exercise prescription and referral training for physicians and nurses at 54 community healthcare centers
- Government assistance in matching participants with sports facilities near their homes
- Credentialed instructors with experience in similar programs and exercise training in adults
- Group exercise sessions with participants grouped by age and tailored to individuals’ conditioning
The program ran for 10 weeks and consisted of one hour sessions three times per week for 30 total sessions. Participants were adults with either hypertension (high blood pressure) or dyslipidemia (elevated blood lipids) visiting their primary care physician.
According to the findings, 82.7% of people agreed to the referral program when asked by their doctor or nurse, 72% officially started the program. Of those who started the program, 81% completed more than 20 of the 30 sessions.
Data analysis found a statistically significant improvement in both men and women for every study variable, including:
- body weight,
- aerobic fitness,
- muscle strength,
- flexibility, and
Self-reported variables—mood and physical fitness levels—also improved. In addition, 49.4% of participants strongly believed that they would keep up with regular exercise over the next six months.
This study has a few key limitations, a significant one being the lack of a comparison or control group. Without a comparison or control group, this study cannot tell us how much better—or not—this particular physician referred exercise program is in comparison to other models or different treatment types—like a handout or web app.
This study is helpful because the program in this study is similar to those currently offered by health clubs. It is convenient to the participant’s home, offers the social aspect of group training, and provides individualized exercise with credentialed instructors. The program was free, which is not typical of health club programs; however, many gyms offer affordable pricing for physician referral programs. Some evidence suggests programs that have some cost attached, or “skin in the game,” can be more effective than free programs.