Doctors have been given the right to hand out fruit and vegetables to patients on the National Health. And in some areas, the overweight, stressed-out and smokers can even be given a session at the local gym by their GP.

Doctors have been given the right to hand out fruit and vegetables to patients on the National Health. And in some areas, the overweight, stressed-out and smokers can even be given a session at the local gym by their GP.

The free prescriptions for anything from a couple of kiwi fruit to a pound of carrots are part of a scheme being tested in Wallasey, in the Wirral, Cheshire, and shortly to be extended throughout the borough.

It is among several NHS-backed initiatives to make the nation fitter and more health-conscious which will be outlined at a conference in London on Tuesday.

Sue Drew, a sports scientist and health promotion manager of Wirral and West Cheshire Health Trust, said: "What the doctor, or health visitor will prescribe is actually a weight management programme and if as a part of this programme the patient needs to increase his or her consumption of fruit and vegetables they will get a voucher for free supplies from their local store.

"Anyone over 16 is eligible but obviously we want to target those more disadvantaged people who are less likely to be eating enough fruit and vegetables.''

Andy Worthington, director of leisure for Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, said anyone could walk into one of the 80 GP practices in the area and get exercise on prescription. "Instead of drugs, sedatives or other medication, the doctor can prescribe a course at a local leisure centre, or other activity area such as community centres or libraries where the patient is monitored and given an exercise programme,'' he said.

A similar scheme operates in the London boroughs of Camden and Islington.

''Originally we set up an activity programme using sport and exercise to reduce the risk of falls among the elderly,'' said Sam Anderson, the physical activities officer. "This has now been extended to cardiac rehabilitation. Falls among the elderly cost the NHS around £940m and if we can prevent someone from fracturing their hip it represents a saving of around £20,000.''

Among the positive links between sport, exercise and health, designed to ease the strain on the NHS, to be outlined at Tuesday's "Fitness for Life'' conference organised by Sport England in conjunction with the Health Development Agency, are tai-chi for older people in Camden, dance classes for teenagers in Bradford and PE lessons for pupils with physical disabilities in Birmingham.

The need to promote exercise, games and diet as a means of reducing the strain on the NHS will be emphasised by Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the health minister Yvette Cooper.

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