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Clinical champions: Embedding physical activity into routine clinical care

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Being active is essential for good health and it’s often said that “if physical activity were a drug, we’d talk about it as a miracle cure.”

To mark the launch of the latest stage of the One You Active10 campaign, we spoke to two PHE physical activity clinical champions, who are practicing healthcare professionals delivering peer-to-peer training to other health professionals, providing them with the knowledge and skills to incorporate physical activity into their everyday practice.

Dr Campbell Murdoch (CM) is a GP from Bath and Anna Lowe (AL) is a physiotherapist based in Sheffield.

What’s the physical activity clinical champions’ initiative all about?

CM: The initiative was created to help increase the amount of physical activity in the population across England and is part of a bigger PHE and Sport England programme called ‘Moving Healthcare Professionals’. Often in our clinical training we have had very little experience in understanding the importance of physical activity, the benefits it can provide and also how to motivate people to go through behaviour change. For me, the clinical champion role entails going out to venues, often GP practices or hospitals, to meet with health professionals and benefit from some protected learning time.

AL: I work with the 14 allied health professions (AHPs) with the same objective. AHPs engage with people in so many ways, often supporting people with complex conditions, and one of the brilliant things about physical activity is the positive impact it can have on many medical conditions.

What sorts of information do you pass on through your role?

AL: Front line staff are busy and are used to having to do more with less, so I really emphasise the effectiveness and evidence-base behind providing brief advice on physical activity. Even if our time with a patient is short there’s evidence that brief conversations are effective. In other words, starting a conversation with an informal question about how active people are, assessing their level of physical activity and offering a recommendation.

CM: I agree, I think what professionals find valuable is seeing how you turn this information into action such as brief interventions and motivational interviewing. We also cover the risks of physical inactivity and touch on the benefits of physical activity at a cellular level, which people find really interesting.

When you talk to health professionals, are there any barriers to having more conversations about physical activity in their daily practice?

CM: It’s vital that all healthcare professionals start feeling confident to have a conversation with patients about physical activity. We know that physical activity is important but we may not be aware of the true benefits to so many conditions.

AL: Confidence can definitely be an issue and I also see some professionals who worry they struggle to keep up to date with local physical activity services to refer people to. In the sessions I run we emphasise the need for everyone to understand their local offer as they are part of it. I’ve seen some great examples like AHP teams having a tablet with all the local physical activity opportunities loaded up on it or a team wellbeing notice board, online information portals or just a simple ring binder. The key is for someone to manage this so professionals can always access information about where to refer or signpost patients.

Do patients welcome conversations about their physical activity levels?

CM: Absolutely, because the techniques we use are based on asking what’s important to people, not just telling them what to do. Often we conjure up thoughts about physical activity being just sports and the gym, which are obviously very good if people enjoy that. But equally, going for a 10 minute brisk walk or simply getting up for a wander round two minutes out of every 30 to 60 minutes can provide huge benefits. Being active can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Once this information is known it’s empowering to talk about physical activity.

AL: Maybe there used to be a myth that starting these conversations is poking your nose in, but patients not only find it acceptable, they value these conversations. As Campbell said this is about creating sustainable change – really listening and understanding what motivates people and what their goals are and how we can support them.

What’s one key thing you’ve learned from being a clinical champion that you now pass on to other clinicians?

AL: I try to emphasise that we all come at this from different angles and that we should avoid judging others.  It is a lot easier to become active if you live in a nice area, have great social support and lots of opportunities.  It’s very different if you have pain, if you are low in mood and if your neighbourhood isn’t safe, for example.

CM: In our daily practice we are all seeing a lot of long-term conditions and often there aren’t perfect treatments to manage them so we end up feeling helpless. Learning about the benefits of physical activity, and feeling that we have the skills to empower people to change their behaviour, is really liberating.

Suddenly instead of those heart-sinking consultations where you feel like you don’t really have anything to offer, you’ve got a whole new toolkit to guide conversations in a very different direction, with physical activity producing gains for the patient, but also for you and the system.

Has being a clinical champion been rewarding?

CM: For me the love of the role is that health professionals really like the training. I’ve been doing this for about 3 years and I’ve not experienced a single session where people haven’t enjoyed and learnt something.

AL: We’ve had great feedback. I’m on Twitter and this is a useful way to keep in touch with people after sessions. It’s great when AHPs let me know they have developed a new initiative within their team to help each other promote the benefits of physical activity.


Accessing clinical champions training

There is a national footprint of PHE Clinical Champions who provide free training sessions to groups of healthcare professionals and have trained 10,000 healthcare professionals to date. To find out more or to book a session contact:

All our Health

Are you promoting physical activity in your everyday practice? The following All Our Health resources are designed to help you:

Image credit: Sport England

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  1. Comment by Glenn posted on

    Why are the people in the picture wearing hi-viz vests? Are we really saying that you need specialist clothing to walk?

  2. Comment by Anna Lowe posted on

    Hi Glen, I think on this particular picture the 2 ppl in vests are leaders of an organised walking group. Specialist clothing certainly not required for walking. Anna

  3. Comment by Neville Lewis posted on

    Those in the hi-viz vest are probably walking leaders