GPs are being urged to prescribe golf for their patients - after pilot schemes found it boosted levels of fitness, muscle strength and happiness.
Family doctors in London, Birmingham and Hampshire are being invited to take part in the programme, which sees the NHS offering golf coaching to patients with heart disease and respiratory conditions.
Pilot schemes in south London found that patients referred for golf saw levels of vigorous exercise triple, with significant boosts in life satisfaction, happiness and self-esteem.
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The study also found an increase in grip strength - an indicator of overall health and longevity - among those enrolled for sessions.
Researchers said “golf on referral” could be particularly good at encouraging middle aged men to take up exercise - those who are often unlikely to respond to standard health initiatives.
The programme is part of a wider NHS policy of “social prescribing,” with plans for GPs to refer almost 1 million patients for classes and activities which boost health and reduce loneliness.
Those taking part in pilot schemes in Bromley and Orpington, south London, saw average levels of vigorous exercise rise almost three-fold. At the start of their programme, average activity levels were the equivalent of about one hour’s running a week. Six weeks’ later, participants activity levels were equivalent to more than three hours’ running.
Grip strength, a strong indicator of vitality in older people, increased significantly over the course of the study – suggesting improvements in muscle strength and reduced risk of falls or disability.
Major boosts were also seen in the mood of those enrolled in the programme, who had an average age of 68. Life satisfaction scores rose from 7 to 7.8, happiness levels from 7.4 to 7.5 and feelings of being worthwhile increased from 7.9 to 8.5.
In pilot schemes, participants were given two sessions a week for six weeks. Each involved a 30 minute group discussion about lifestyle changes, followed by 45 minutes golf coaching.
The scheme, backed by fitness body ukactive, has so far been funded by England Golf and leisure operator Mytime Active. From April, it will be offered more widely, with the NHS asked to fund some of its costs, while rolling it out to cover patients with conditions such as type 2 diabetes, depression, and arthritis.
Prof Sir Muir Gray, an advisor to Public Health England, said: “Golf on referral is an excellent high-value health service because we now have strong evidence that physical activity can not only prevent disease but that it can also prevent disability, dementia and frailty in people who are already affected by disease.”
He said too many people gave up activities such as football, golf, and dancing as they approached middle age or retirement, and should be encouraged by GPs to stick with it.
“We want to see every clinician ask not just ‘what exercise do you take?’ but also ‘are there any sports or activities that you used to do but have given up?’” he said.
Steven Ward, ukactive CEO, said: “We all know our national activity levels are well below par on where we need to be.
“Golf is a fantastic way to encourage people to be more active, particularly among parts of the population who may not be too engaged with other activities.
“This research shows that there are clear mental, physical and emotional benefits for Golf on Referral – we should look to roll out more of these programmes across the country as part of wider efforts to get the nation moving.”
Participants in the pilot schemes said they felt able to discuss their health problems with fellow golfers, in a “non-judgemental and non-preachy” environment.
Abbie Lench, England Golf Head of Club Support, said: “We’re thrilled to see this scheme developing from our earlier research into the impact of playing golf on health and wellbeing, which we carried out with the support of Mytime Active and ukactive.
“It’s been exciting to see the results of the pilot schemes and to gain even more evidence that golf is good for health. We hope that golf on referral can be made more widely available.”