Fitbit on prescription? It might just work

By on 20/06/2016 in Blog, Cllr Hamilton, News

Birmingham Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, Cllr Paulette Hamilton, believes the NHS should seriously consider offering fitness trackers on prescription to combat the UK’s inactivity crisis.

Cllr Hamilton’s personal experience is with Fitbit but other fitness trackers are available.

There are simple things most of us can do to improve our health.

  • Eat a healthier diet
  • If you smoke – quit
  • If you drink too much – cut down

And of course

  • Be more physically active.

Exercise can reduce your risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer by up to 50 per cent. It can lower your risk of early death by up to 30 per cent, while research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

fitbitBut telling people they need to do more exercise is easy. Getting them to heed that advice is much harder, so anything that can encourage people to get off the couch has got to be a good thing.

That’s why I’m starting to think that NHS bosses should seriously consider the positive impact of offering fitness trackers on prescription.

Bear with me and I’ll explain why.

As Birmingham’s Director of Public Health Dr Adrian Phillips reflected: “Two of the biggest game-changers in public health at the moment are e-cigarettes and fitness trackers Neither of them cost the public purse a penny but could end up saving the NHS an absolute fortune.”

I’ll leave the debate about e-cigarettes for another day but on the subject of fitness trackers, I am most definitely a convert and my personal experience in recent months is that my Fitbit works.

Like many of you reading this I lead a busy life. I’m a working mum and that means I don’t always have much spare time. I know exercise is important – I should do as a former nurse – but I also know that it can sometimes take a back-seat to the other demands of life.

But being active doesn’t have to mean joining a gym or playing in a sports team. It can mean walking more or taking the stairs and rather than feeling guilty about what we don’t do, isn’t it better to build on the things we do?

I’ve always walked to meetings in different parts of the city and I take the stairs more often than jumping in the lift. These are things I take for granted but I don’t always think of them as ‘being physically active’. Now, thanks to my FitBit I do. I see a meeting on the third floor as an opportunity to get more steps, so I ignore the lift and take the stairs. Basically, with a personal daily target of 10,000 steps, I take every opportunity to walk.

If I’m falling short of my target I do something about it – even if that means just walking around the house. That’s not because I feel guilty though – more that I feel motivated to keep up my recent good work.

Now I’m definitely not a fitness fanatic. I’m not one of those people who talks about ‘no pain, no gain’ and all that nonsense.  I’ve tried gym memberships, Zumba classes and more. I’ve enjoyed them all but not necessarily stuck to them. But my Fitbit is different.

There’s no doubt at all that it has increased my motivation and, the fact that I can compare my activity against that of friends and family, has added an element of fun competition that inspires me on the days when I just want to put my feet up.

So is there an argument for ‘Fitbit on the NHS’?

Well if we could ensure people use them – and I think they would – why not?

The national cost of inactivity now stands at £20 billion a year! That’s comparable to smoking or alcohol harm. Indeed diabetes alone costs the NHS nearly £10billion a year and yet in many cases it is avoidable if people adopt a healthier lifestyle.

People identified as at risk of developing type 2 diabetes are often told to exercise more and if it takes a £55 Fitbit (or similar fitness tracker) to ensure they heed that advice, I’d say that would be money well spent.

I’m not suggesting the NHS suddenly splashes out of tens of thousands of these trackers without trialling them first. But maybe the time has come for a trial and I would welcome the chance to carry out that trial in Birmingham.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for a walk as I’ve only done 7,000 steps today…

 Cllr Hamilton’s personal experience is with Fitbit but other fitness trackers are available.

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