By Richard Davison

SPORT and physical activity are good for your health – that’s not breaking news of course. In Scotland, however, the latest NHS Health Scotland statistics suggest that 65 per cent of adults are overweight, with 29 per cent of this percentage being obese. Not only does this mean that more than half of our population is at an increased risk of developing serious health conditions, it also impacts our economy to a tune of up to £4.6 billion annually.

So where are we going wrong if we know the powerful benefits of sport and exercise, but the message doesn’t take hold? Fundamentally, I believe it comes down to signposting and appropriate support systems to help people adopt more active lifestyles. Thus the need for social prescribing, which is a means of enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services.

The concept of prescribing physical activity has been around for decades. Where the recently published report from the Scottish Government’s Health and Sport Committee, “Social Prescribing: Physical activity is an investment, not a cost”, is different is in that it seeks to better understand how incorporating physical activity and sport into social prescribing could particularly improve the health and wellbeing of people in Scotland.

The report makes it explicit that social prescribing is not a cost-free option – and that there are challenges we will need to overcome – but it also underlines the key message that social prescribing of physical activity does have unarguable benefits.

I was also pleased to see the report highlighting the growing inequality between active and non-active populations by area of deprivation, with its consequential health and wellbeing impacts – an area that must be addressed.

Fundamental to making the social prescribing model work in Scotland is having an accurate picture of sports participation levels in Scotland. Currently, that’s something we don’t have and whilst this is a small challenge that is relatively easy to overcome, we also need to be mindful that a large percentage of the people we are working with are described as the "difficult to reach" in terms of behaviour change.

GPs have traditionally been responsible for "prescribing" sport and physical activity, but these professionals are time-poor and under increasing pressure to treat an ageing population.

Instead, the responsibility for social prescribing should fall to dedicated link workers, and for this to be successful, significant funding needs to be put in place. It was encouraging then to learn of the suggestion that five per cent of the Integrated Authorities (IA) budget – which currently sits around £8bn – should be allocated to developing this type of preventative healthcare.

In my opinion, the Government needs to act now on the recommendations set out in the report and make radical changes in its primary prevention approaches.

For example, I think we should increase the number of GPs in leisure centres or community sports hubs in order to make a distinct association between physical activity and health.

If this is implemented properly, public and private sectors need to work together to understand and change current behaviours through preventative measures which include social prescribing. Whilst initially this will come at a financial cost, it is a long-term investment into health, wellbeing and the economic fortunes of Scotland.

Richard Davison is a University of the West of Scotland professor and Observatory for Sport in Scotland vice-chairman