Open Access Highly Accessed Debate

An evolving perspective on physical activity counselling by medical professionals

Steven McPhail12* and Mandy Schippers12

Author Affiliations

1 School of Public Health and Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

2 Centre for Functioning and Health Research, Queensland Health, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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BMC Family Practice 2012, 13:31  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-13-31

Published: 23 April 2012

Abstract

Background

Physical inactivity is a modifiable risk factor for many chronic conditions and a leading cause of premature mortality. An increasing proportion of adults worldwide are not engaging in a level of physical activity sufficient to prevent or alleviate these adverse effects. Medical professionals have been identified as potentially powerful sources of influence for those who do not meet minimum physical activity guidelines. Health professionals are respected and expected sources of advice and they reach a large and relevant proportion of the population. Despite this potential, health professionals are not routinely practicing physical activity promotion.

Discussion

Medical professionals experience several known barriers to physical activity promotion including lack of time and lack of perceived efficacy in changing physical activity behaviour in patients. Furthermore, evidence for effective physical activity promotion by medical professionals is inconclusive. To address these problems, new approaches to physical activity promotion are being proposed. These include collaborating with community based physical activity behaviour change interventions, preparing patients for effective brief counselling during a consultation with the medical professional, and use of interactive behaviour change technology.

Summary

It is important that we recognise the latent risk of physical inactivity among patients presenting in clinical settings. Preparation for improving patient physical activity behaviours should commence before the consultation and may include physical activity screening. Medical professionals should also identify suitable community interventions to which they can refer physically inactive patients. Outsourcing the majority of a comprehensive physical activity intervention to community based interventions will reduce the required clinical consultation time for addressing the issue with each patient. Priorities for future research include investigating ways to promote successful referrals and subsequent engagement in comprehensive community support programs to increase physical activity levels of inactive patients. Additionally, future clinical trials of physical activity interventions should be evaluated in the context of a broader framework of outcomes to inform a systematic consideration of broad strengths and weaknesses regarding not only efficacy but cost-effectiveness and likelihood of successful translation of interventions to clinical contexts.