Social Prescribing of Physical Activity and Sport


About the Inquiry

To complement our Primary Care inquiry and following a high degree of interest from our Primary Care public panel sessions in the wider aspects of health and wellbeing and healthy communities, such as:

  • prevention of illness, obesity and poor health;
  • active travel;
  • access to greenspace and exercise;
  • access to leisure facilities

the Committee has decided to undertake a short inquiry to consider social prescribing’s ability to tackle physical and mental wellbeing issues across Scotland.

The focus of the inquiry will be on the prescribing of sport, exercise and other recreational types of activity.

The UK-wide Social Prescribing Network defines social prescribing as:

‘Social Prescribing is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker - to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector. It is an innovative and growing movement, with the potential to reduce the financial burden on the NHS and particularly on primary care.’

The Kings Fund in 2017 reported that there is emerging evidence that social prescribing can lead to a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes, including helping to alleviate depression and anxiety.

It is anticipated that a short inquiry will allow Committee Members to discuss the role of social prescribing for sport and physical activity being key contributors to preventative self-care for health and wellbeing.  It will allow consideration of some of the barriers to and drawbacks of social prescribing as a means to increase exercise and sporting participation levels.  It will also complement the ongoing inquiry into Primary Care by considering the role of the GP and the multi-disciplinary team in encouraging better self-care and higher levels of physical activity.


'Social prescribing' has been advocated and used at least since the 1990s, and has become more widely used in Scotland with the establishment of Community Links Workers (CLWs).  The Scottish Government has been committeed to a GP Link Worker Programme since pilots in 2014, and in 2016 the SNP made a manifesto commitment:

'Scotland's most deprived communities need additional support, so we will recruit at least 250 Community Link Workers to work in GP surgeries and direct people to local services and support.'

The Memorandum of Understanding, which is aligned to the new GMS contract provides more detail about the multi-disciplinary team, aimed at reducing the workload of GPs, and includes reference to CLWs.

The implementation of CLWs within primary care and community facilities recognises that some people approach GPs and other health professionals when the cause of their distress or problem might not be clinical in nature.  CLWs are in place to support and signpost people to more appropriate services and sources of support such as debt advice organisations, befriending schemes or walking groups for example.

It should be noted that social prescribing in Scotland does not tend to be used to encourage people to be more active per se, but to improve more general heath and mental wellbeing, so can include referrals to many different sorts of activities.

The work to develop the role of CLWs in Scotland is being led by NHS Scotland's Public Health Network (ScotPHN). 


Following our call for views the Committee held a one-off evidence session (in a roundtable format) on Tuesday 29 October 2019 with practitioners, professionals and academics. 

The Official Report of the meeting can be read here.


To support this short inquiry we issued a general call for views from Friday 12 July to Friday 30 August 2019.

Read the call for written views here.

Read the written submissions received here.


The Committee published its Report:

Social Prescribing: physical activity is an investment, not a cost on 4 December 2019.

Following consideration of the above report, Jeane Freeman MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, wrote to Lewis Macdonald MSP, Convener of the Health and Sport Committee.

Letter from Jeane Freeman MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to Lewis Macdonald MSP, Convener of the Health and Sport Committee - 4 February 2020 (669KB pdf)

On 16 December 2019, Joan McAlpine MSP, Convener of the Cross Party Group on Culture, wrote to Lewis Macdonald MSP, Convener of the Health and Sport Committee, regarding the Social Prescribing report.


Following publication of our report, a Committee Chamber Debate took place on 18 February 2020. The Official Report can be accessed via this link.

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