To assess the impact of exercise referral schemes on physical activity and health outcomes. Randomised controlled trials or non-randomised controlled (cluster or individual) studies published in peer review journals. Population: sedentary individuals with or without medical diagnosis. Exercise referral schemes defined as: clear referrals by primary care professionals to third party service providers to increase physical activity or exercise, physical activity or exercise programmes tailored to individuals, and initial assessment and monitoring throughout programmes. Comparators: usual care, no intervention, or alternative exercise referral schemes. Eight randomised controlled trials met the inclusion criteria, comparing exercise referral schemes with usual care (six trials), alternative physical activity intervention (two), and an exercise referral scheme plus a self determination theory intervention (one). Compared with usual care, follow-up data for exercise referral schemes showed an increased number of participants who achieved 90-150 minutes of physical activity of at least moderate intensity per week (pooled relative risk 1.16, 95% confidence intervals 1.03 to 1.30) and a reduced level of depression (pooled standardised mean difference −0.82, −1.28 to −0.35). Evidence of a between group difference in physical activity of moderate or vigorous intensity or in other health outcomes was inconsistent at follow-up. We did not find any difference in outcomes between exercise referral schemes and the other two comparator groups. None of the included trials separately reported outcomes in individuals with specific medical diagnoses. Substantial heterogeneity in the quality and nature of the exercise referral schemes across studies might have contributed to the inconsistency in outcome findings. Considerable uncertainty remains as to the effectiveness of exercise referral schemes for increasing physical activity, fitness, or health indicators, or whether they are an efficient use of resources for sedentary people with or without a medical diagnosis.
- exercise referral
- physical activity