How exercise and company on South Tyneside can be the best medicine

Health Correspondent Helen Ford speaks to those taking part in a social prescribing programme on South Tyneside.

Being in the great outdoors has become a way of life for John Nightingale.

Whenever he can, he is out digging, raking and planting at horticulture sessions across South Tyneside.

He explained: "It keeps us fit and I meet different people, all the guys and we get on great."

Mr Nightingale is a long-standing member of the so-called 'green gyms' which are run across the area by the charity Groundwork.

For him, the sessions help him to stay active and enjoy the company of others.

"We've been through the winters, the rain, storms and everything," he added. "Still come up. I couldn't give it up."

In the allotment at West Boldon Lodge, work is focusing on planting spring vegetables and young trees.

The project is well established, but it and schemes like it are part of the growing movement known as social prescribing.

The aim is to improve and support a person's wellbeing by addressing concerns such as loneliness and isolation, as well as physical and mental health.

The green gym at West Boldon is a two hour weekly outdoor session. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Groundwork runs five green gym sessions each week at locations across the borough.

Project officer Jen Wootten said it is vital to work to the pace of each participant, taking account of physical or mental health needs.

She said: "You can see from these guys how much it means to them and we often talk about the impacts it has on them and they talk about how much it's improved their mental wellbeing.

"We like to make sure it's accessible to everyone so we can do different activities that might be slightly more intense or gentle so that everyone can be involved."

While many social prescribing activities are based outdoors, they can take a number of forms including walking and swimming.

Other options involve handicrafts or traditional skills.

The term 'social prescribing' also takes in skills for life, such as managing debt.

Dr David Julien is an expert in social prescribing and a clinical lead within the North East NHS.

He said it is still early days for the movement but believes it can play a vital role in managing and supporting health and wellbeing.

While it is not a substitute for medication, Dr Julien said it can provide particular benefits for people whose issues stem from social and economic circumstances.

He explained: "The evidence that we have available to us suggests that about one in five people go to their GP for health problems that are related to the places where they live and the condition that they live in and how much money they have sometimes."

Social prescribing is now firmly embedded within NHS strategy, but Dr Julien believes a major hurdle remains - the people who would benefit most from its activities are often the least likely to access them.

Part of the solution, he believes, is ensuring that potential participants are connected with what is on offer, with specialist link workers playing a key role.

Dr Julien continued: "Every GP surgery now has a social prescribing link worker who can work with people and actively help the to connect to a wonderful range of community activities and resources that will definitely have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing."

The growth of social prescribing is also supported by South Tyneside Council as it works to tackle health inequalities.

Ellie Forrester, from the authority's public health team, explained: "There's a lot of poverty in the borough and poverty, we know, has an effect on a person's health and wellbeing so programmes such as this are really important to support people holistically."

One of a line of trees being planted at West Boldon Lodge Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

While some of those taking part in the green gym at West Boldon are referred there, others participants have taken the step themselves.

The Groundwork team believes there is more to be done in terms of putting social prescribing on the agenda - both within the health sector and more broadly.

On the allotment, Steven Lumsley is raking a raised bed in preparation for planting.

Asked how he benefits from spending time in the fresh air, he said: "It sets you up for the day. I can go back home, make myself a meal but it sets you up for the day to do something.

"I can't do much but I can do something."

No-one is suggesting that social prescribing is the answer to the region's health issues.

At a time of such pressures on frontline services, coupled with an ageing population, its advocates believe the approach can play a crucial role in helping communities to live better.

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