Dance classes are to be provided by the National Health Service in a drive to tackle plummeting fitness levels and a national obesity crisis.
In a campaign to be launched by ministers this week, GPs will hand out questionnaires to determine how much daily exercise their patients take. People who reveal a sedentary lifestyle could be prescribed a range of activities funded by NHS trusts, including street-dancing, tango classes and trampolining.
The move follows a number of pilot schemes across the country which have succeeded in getting people off the couch and motivating them to take more exercise. They have achieved success across the generations, from obese children to underactive pensioners. Now Caroline Flint, the Public Health minister, is to roll out the scheme across England and Wales.
Figures show that more than 14 million people in the UK will be dangerously overweight by 2010, many of whom have an aversion to organised sport. The cost of inactivity is reckoned to be £8bn a year, including bills for tackling illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, depression and lost working days. The Government wants children - already among the most obese in the world - to take part in an at least an hour of moderate activity each day, while adults should aim to do half an hour of light exercise, such as brisk walking, five days a week.
The 10 "Local Exercise Action Pilots", funded by the Department of Health and run by NHS trusts, used a range of unconventional programmes to motivate people. One trust ran street-dance classes, using pop videos, trampolining, and even "Twister on the beach" parties, to get girls aged 10 to 16 to be more active. Children referred by school nurses and paediatricians went for country walks and built hides from sticks. They were also taken on mile-long walks to supermarkets where they learnt about healthy eating. In another NHS trust programme, over-50s, some referred by GPs, did boxing, skipping and other exercises, including a "tango warm-down". There were also organised walks in a forest.
Results to be published this week will show that the programmes succeeded in increasing exercise rates by an hour and a half each week for people classed as "sedentary" or "at risk of particular health conditions".
Department of Health research shows that early intervention to increase fitness does save the NHS money. A spokesperson said: "The £2.5m pilot programme tested a number of ways to help people from priority groups increase the amount of activity they undertake. Overall, the 10 pilots demonstrated that physical activity interventions are cost-effective and can save the NHS money in the long-term by reducing ill health. The benefits are more immediate on a personal level for participants."