GPs in England to prescribe ‘non-judgmental’ exercise classes for women

GPs are to begin prescribing “judgment-free” fitness classes for women seeking help with conditions including diabetes and depression.

Designed by Sport England, This Girl Can classes will be launched across the country early next year, drawing on the success of its award-winning campaign of the same name.

This Girl Can was first launched in 2015 after research showed women wanted to be more active but were held back by fear of being judged. In five years it helped more than 500,000 women and girls to become more physically active.

But while things improved, research commissioned by Sport England found more than half of women continued to say they were prevented from exercising, at least occasionally, due to worries about what others think.

Drawing on disciplines including boxing, dancing and yoga, the sessions are designed to be inclusive and attendees are encouraged to “do your worst”.

Doctors will be encouraged to refer patients to the classes as part of social prescribing, in which instead of being offered medication, patients are sent to a range of local, non-clinical services to support and boost their health and wellbeing, in conjunction with a link worker.

The patient’s non-medical needs are addressed by taking part in social activities such as walking clubs and art groups, as part of a more holistic, community-based approach to treating conditions such as obesity, depression and diabetes.

It is estimated that about one in five GP appointments focus on wider social problems and needs, rather than medical issues.

Sport England also hopes the programme will begin to address the gender imbalance in physical activity levels, which has worsened during the pandemic. Earlier this year, campaigners warned that women had fewer opportunities to exercise during lockdown, and a recent survey found women were taking longer than men to return to their pre-pandemic exercise habits.

Tim Hollingsworth, Sport England’s chief executive, told the Times: “Despite the enormous progress we have made with supporting more women to get active in recent years, the gender gap for activity stubbornly persists. It’s never been more important. Getting active boosts mental and physical health, helps manage anxiety and stress and creates social ties, but millions of women are missing out on these benefits.”

Frances Drury, the head of activation at Sport England, said many women often felt judged or embarrassed in group exercise classes where an instructor focused on them. “So with the instructor training we’ve focused on those soft skills to create a warm and welcoming environment, where it feels free of judgement,” she said.

Drury added that many women experienced sexual harassment in gyms or while exercising outdoors, making the availability of female-only classes important.

The focus of the classes was not on weight loss but “directly talking about health”, she said. “What we want to convey is the joy of exercising in itself and then trying to tackle the fear and judgment barrier that we know women are more likely to experience when it comes to physical activity.”


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