Physical activity and social prescribing

As part of the All Together Active physical activity strategy for Cheshire and Merseyside, MSP worked alongside the other North West Active Partnerships (Active Cumbria, Active Lancashire, Greater Sport and Active Cheshire) to better understand and benchmark physical activity usage/knowledge within the social prescribing landscape.

Two surveys were conducted as part of this process between November 2021 and March 2022:

  1. Firstly working with social prescribing Link Workers to understand their knowledge and confidence of speaking to patients about physical activity, plus about their own experiences of being active
  2. Then reaching out providers of physical activity (including sports clubs, leisure providers, personal trainers, third sector and private providers) to understand their knowledge of social prescribing, and their capacity and willingness to receive more referrals through from Link Workers

Link Worker survey

69 Merseyside based Link Workers were surveyed, with the data analysis demonstrating that:

  • Those who have received physical activity training are significantly more likely to refer patients in to physical activity provision, and have a much better knowledge and confidence when talking about physical activity
  • Only 25% Link Workers said that they have received training about physical activity, demonstrating a gap in provision. Link Workers said that, linked to physical activity, supporting patients with long-term health conditions, overcoming barriers and behaviour change would be most useful to learn more about through training
  • 46% Link Workers felt that they have enough knowledge about physical activity provision in their area, reducing to 38% for those who have not undertaken any specific training about physical activity
  • The majority of Link Workers did at least some physical activity themselves (90% did over 30 minutes per week). Link Workers who do over 150 minutes of activity per week were significantly more likely to feel confident about talking to patients about physical activity
  • Not enough Link Workers measure/track physical activity levels of patients – this could be a simple pre/post measure added in to help raise more conversations about physical activity and to help patients see a tangible difference
  • More information could be given out by Link Workers to encourage patients to be active from home, especially where barriers to accessing community services are presented
  • A large proportion of patients that Link Workers support are experiencing mental health problems or financial difficulties, meaning clubs and providers need to be prepared and equipped to be able to support patients in difficult circumstances
  • Link Workers still seem to be making most of their referrals in to traditional leisure centre or gym providers. This in particular could cause a mismatch with the number of patients experiencing mental health problems, as these settings may not be best suited for people feeling isolated, self-conscious etc

Physical activity provider survey

101 Merseyside based physical activity providers were surveyed, with the data analysis demonstrating that:

  • 78% of physical activity providers across Merseyside have at least some understanding of social prescribing, but only 34% are connected in with their local social prescribing service
  • There is a clear appetite for providers wanting to engage directly with their local Link Workers; currently only 8% of providers who aren’t already engaged in social prescribing know who their Link Worker is, and the majority of providers rely on the Link Workers proactively seeking out information about their services rather than being able to approach the Link Workers themselves. A method of bringing Link Workers and Providers together needs to be established
  • 50% of those providers not currently engaged in their local social prescribing service would like to do so, with 79% of these feeling confident in being able to accommodate the needs of people being referred through. A lot of clubs already have things in place (eg welcoming environment, buddying system) to support new participants
  • A lot of providers are unsure as to exactly how much more demand that they could accommodate, with barriers/worries around not enough funding to run sessions, training required for volunteers, greater volunteer organising time required and a greater understanding of social prescribing needed first
  • Only 47% providers offer a beginner level entry in to their activity, therefore more work is needed to encourage providers to create more entry level participant pathways. Some providers say that they wouldn’t get involved in social prescribing because they don’t have beginner sessions or wouldn’t have the capacity to run them
  • There is an appetite for providers to undertake training or receive more information linked to social prescribing, with the most popular topics being:
    • What is social prescribing and the role of Link Workers
    • Common social prescribing referral conditions
    • Shaping a provider’s offer around social prescribing
    • How to connect with Link Workers and other organisations
    • Measuring outcomes

Learning and recommendations

  1. Specific physical activity training should be provided to all social prescribing Link Workers, and all physical activity providers should also be provided with training and/or materials to aid their understanding of social prescribing, in particular with the links between physical activity and mental health
  2. Patient physical activity levels should be obtained and recorded by Link Workers, to encourage motivational conversations with every patient and to provide a baseline to show improvement
  3. A method of bringing Link Workers and Providers together to share information/referrals needs to be established. Options need to be informed by and co-produced with the Link Workers and providers
  4. More physical activity providers should consider establishing entry-level offers to their activity to encourage new participants to join in, especially taking in to consideration the large volume of patients experiencing mental health problems and therefore requiring a more inclusive/reassuring pathway in to physical activity (than for example a traditional leisure setting). However this needs to be backed up with additional capacity and/or support to assist the providers in offering this
  5. Further engagement should be organised with Link Workers and providers to work through some potential solutions to the above, with a pilot and scale-up approach recommended to gain learning before full-scale implementation

Further information

For further information about this social prescribing insight, or support in implementing the recommendations then please contact Danny Woodworth (Partnership Manager for Health) via

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