Welsh Doctors Can Now Prescribe Free Bicycle Rides

The pilot program joins a recent spate of ‘social prescribing’ activities to hit the U.K.

Can a bike ride a day keep the doctor away? Pixabay

Can a bike ride a day keep the doctor away? An unconventional public health initiative recently launched in Wales’ capital city aims to find out.

As the Welsh National Health Service announced in a May press release, doctors at two Cardiff medical centers can now prescribe free six-month subscriptions to a local bike-rental service. The pilot program strives to not only improve cardiovascular health, but support overall mental well-being. If successful, the campaign could be expanded to include other health care professionals across the city, and perhaps even the country.

In a statement, Tom Porter, a consultant in Public Health Medicine with Public Health Wales, cites research suggesting regular cycling can reduce one’s risk of dying from heart disease by 52 percent. At the same time, he adds, bicycling is “a great way to get around the city without using your car, making it good for both you and the environment around you.”

Under the new plan, doctors at Cardiff’s Lansdowne Surgery and Fairwater Health Centre can provide patients with a code enabling access to an unlimited number of free, 30-minute bike riding sessions. According to BBC News, these sessions (made possible by European bike-sharing company Nextbike) can cost up to £10, or $12.95 USD, per day without a prescription. Typically, non-subscribers pay £1 for the first 30 minutes and an additional £1 for every half hour beyond this mark. Subscription fees range from £5 to £10 per month.

The Independent’s Katie O’Malley writes that the announcement closely follows an NHS report detailing a 15 percent annual increase in the number of England’s obesity-related hospital admissions.

The Welsh initiative is far from the first to link exercise with improved health. In the U.S., the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise in Medicine campaign encourages doctors to prescribe physical activity as part of treatment; a similar program established in Boston in 2014 enabled doctors to prescribe bike rides to low-income patients.

But the cycling campaign is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, which has recently experienced a burst of interest in what’s known as “social prescribing.” A somewhat loosely defined concept that draws on therapeutic art-, hobby- or exercise-based treatments for ailments ranging from dementia to psychosis, lung conditions and mental health issues, the health care approach will allow U.K. physicians to prescribe such treatments as attending cooking classes, gardening, and visiting cultural venues including museums and libraries.

The idea is that these out-of-the-box activities are intended to complement rather than replace more traditional forms of therapy. Regardless of the Cardiff pilot program’s success in incorporating free bikes ride broadly, the U.K. is certainly taking the concept seriously. As part of the country's nationwide strategy for addressing loneliness, social prescribing is expected to be implemented across the U.K. by 2023.

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