The Department of Health believes many people suffering from obesity or the first signs of conditions like heart disease and diabetes could benefit more from exercise than drugs.
It is running a trial in London where six GP practices are sending such patients on “health walks” and collecting data to gauge how it improves their fitness.
The findings will be submitted to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence whose formal approval is needed if such prescriptions are to be extended nationwide.
The department is working with the British Heart Foundation and Natural England, the newly created government conservation watchdog, whose brief also includes encouraging people to use green spaces, parks and the green belt.
“Our vision is that soon doctors will be able to write prescriptions for regular brisk walks or cycle rides instead of the drugs they issue now,” said Huw Davies, health campaign manager at Natural England.
“Patients would take the prescriptions to charities such as the Ramblers’ Association or local authorities who would provide regular guided brisk walks of the appropriate length and pace for their condition.”
If the scheme is extended, it could lead to a network of walking groups springing up around Britain effectively paid for by the NHS. Advocates argue that the cost would be easily offset by savings in drug and hospital treatments.
Natural England will set out its vision for promoting both exercise and the use of green spaces at a conference in London tomorrow.
One key issue pinpointed by its research is the need to preserve the green belt around cities which, it says, must be protected if people are to be persuaded to take more outdoor exercise. “Seventy per cent of adults are so inactive they can be classified as almost completely sedentary,” said a Natural England spokesman.
The financial costs of inactivity are also huge. Recent studies have shown that obesity and related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer cost the NHS about £29 billion each year.
Dr Helen Phillips, chief executive of Natural England, said there was a “lost generation” of young people who hardly ever used green spaces. “We want to place the natural environment at the heart of reducing health inequalities and promoting wellbeing,” she said.
A recent study by Sport England showed wide discrepancies in the amount of exercise taken in different areas of England. In the “laziest” borough, Boston in Lincolnshire, only 14.3% of the population did the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of exercise three times a week. People from Newham, the east London area where the London Olympics will be held, were similarly inactive.