Researchers from the Department for Health are evaluating a scheme that allows doctors to refer their patients to fitness professionals for a prescribed programme of exercise to help them to improve their health.

Dr Fiona Gillison is working with Bath & North East Somerset Council’s (BANES) Sports & Active Lifestyles Team and the NHS Public Health Commissioners who want to improve the scheme, which is known as Passport to Health.

The service encourages people with a range of health-related risk factors, such as being overweight, having high blood pressure, or experiencing mild depression, to improve their health through taking up exercise with the support of advisers.

Participants are offered a range of support to help them increase their activity levels under the Passport to Health service. Programmes can last from six to 12 weeks and this can include one-to-one support for the most inactive BANES residents, supported access to six week exercise courses, or a prescribed programme of activity at a leisure centre.

At the moment the service is being used by around 800 people a year in the BANES area but it’s hoped that it will reach many more.

Dr Gillison said:"We are working with the council and Sirona Care & Health to use a scientific model to evaluate not just whether the programme works, but how it works in helping people to take up exercise, and explore who it is reaching.

"Part of the research will involve speaking to people who have not completed the programme to find out why they lost their motivation, and how the programme could be improved to help them more. Working together with the council and the NHS in this way provides a great opportunity to pool our experience and resources to carry out research on, and improve local services."

The project also aims to leave a legacy by developing a tool kit to help public health workers evaluate and refine similar initiatives, as well as providing a blueprint for other areas of the UK to develop intervention evaluation.

The research has been co-funded by BANES, NHS BANES and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The investment from HEFCE provides the University with a Higher Education Innovation Fund Investment Fund which seeks to stimulate proof of commercialisation, proof of market and co-funded development and demonstration projects.

Ray Connelly from Chilcompton has lost four stone since taking part in the Passport for Health scheme. Ray, 57, weighed over 22 stone and had Type 2 diabetes when his GP referred him to the scheme in July. He has since joined a slimming group and was supported with membership to his local gym.

Ray said: "I was a couch potato and I'd been yo-yo dieting for years. I wanted to get fitter and lose weight but I was apprehensive about going to the gym because I thought it would be full of fitness fanatics. But when I got there I realised that there were lots of people like me who were just there to get fit."

Ray now spends seven hours a week at the gym combining cardiovascular and weight exercises. As well as losing weight Ray has also been able to stop taking the medication he was prescribed to treat his diabetes.

He said: "I wake up every day and I can’t believe the change. I feel so good about myself and I never want to go back to how I was – I am resolute on that. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to make a change to their lifestyle."

Pam Burton from Keynsham said joining the scheme helped to motivate her after she retired. Pam, 64, worked for Cadbury's in Keynsham for 22 years before she retired three years ago. She said: "I was concerned about my weight and I didn’t want to do anything because I didn’t feel well enough. I spoke to my GP about it and she suggested the Passport to Health scheme and I was happy to give it a go."

Pam now takes part in aqua aerobics, burlesque and Zumba classes at Keynsham Leisure Centre and has lost 21 pounds. She said: "I feel wonderful – so much better than I did. It’s been a lifesaver for me. I felt very low after retiring but now I’ve made new friends and got my spirit back. My son is getting married soon and I want to look and feel better for the wedding but I also want to carry on with the changes that I’ve made."

Local residents who are currently inactive but have one or more risk factors of heart disease, or those who are experiencing social isolation or mild depression may also be eligible to take up the service. More information can be found through contacting your local GP surgery, through The Sport & Active Lifestyles Team on 01225 396429, or the Sirona hub for information on all healthy lifestyle services on 01225 831852.