Exercise prescriptions

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Prescriptions for physical activity and exercise are one way for primary care physicians and other health care providers to give patients physical activity advice and information. Prescriptions for physical activity outline an exercise plan that can safely meet a patient’s needs based on their current physical condition and the recommended daily Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans1. Such prescriptions set achievable goals, and may also include counseling, activity logs, and exercise testing. Providers check progress at each office visit and may also follow-up via phone, internet, or mail. Individuals at high risk of injury with complex health conditions are referred to certified exercise professionals to receive individually tailored plans.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved physical fitness

  • Increased mobility

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Improved health outcomes

  • Improved mental health

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that medical prescriptions for physical activity increase physical activity and physical fitness2, 3. Prescriptions for physical activity, especially aerobic exercise and resistance training, have been shown to maintain mobility among older adults4.

Exercise prescriptions increase the number of patients that meet recommended physical activity targets2. Exercise prescriptions combined with telephone counseling have been shown to increase physical activity and physical function, and improve mental health and health outcomes, especially for physically inactive women3. Prescriptions to walk 5-7 days/week can increase walking5

Individually tailored exercise prescriptions are more effective than generic prescriptions. Many successful interventions use exercise prescriptions in conjunction with exercise counselling, planning and activity logs, and exercise testing that allows prescriptions to target safe heart rate zones. Combining exercise prescriptions with additional interventions such as phone, mail, or internet follow-up can improve prescription adherence and long-term effectiveness2.

Exercise prescriptions can be tailored for patients with medical conditions such as coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, or hypertension with consultations from certified exercise specialists3. Exercise prescriptions are a suggested strategy to improve the health of patients with diabetes who can safely exercise, since supervised exercise can improve blood pressure control, lower LDL cholesterol levels, and elevate HDL cholesterol levels for diabetic patients6.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

In many areas of the country, physicians use prescriptions to refer patients to local Exercise is Medicine programs, for example, in Pinehurst, NC7; Wesley Chapel, FL8; and East Texas9. Many cities also support health care provider exercise prescription programs, as in Indianapolis, IN and Chicago, IL10.

Through the Prescribing Parks program, health care practitioners prescribe healthy outdoor activities to adults and children, for example, in Baltimore, MD; Greenville, SC; Portland, OR; the County of San Diego, CA; Washington, D.C.11; and the Quad Cities in IA and IL10. Exercise prescriptions are also supported by the Prescription Trails Program in New Mexico10 and the Prescribe a Bike Program in Boston12.

Partnerships can also support efforts to prescribe exercise and refer patients to places for physical activity10. New Jersey introduced legislation in 2014 that would authorize park prescription programs and allow medical practitioners to prescribe free state park access passes to patients with obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure13.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Institute at the Golden Gate (IGG), and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) are collaborating to evaluate and refine best practices for park prescriptions and related programs14.

Implementation Resources

ACSM-EIM - American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Exercise is Medicine (EIM) Initiative. Exercise is medicine: Your prescription for health.

MBC-Health care toolkit - Mary Bridge Children’s (MBC) Hospital-Clinics-Foundation. Health care toolkit: Ready, set, go! 5210.


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1 US DHHS-PAG - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS). Physical activity guidelines for Americans (PAG).

2 Muller-Riemenschneider 2008 - Müller-Riemenschneider F, Reinhold T, Nocon M, Willich SN. Long-term effectiveness of interventions promoting physical activity: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine. 2008;47(4):354-368.

3 Senter 2013 - Senter C, Appelle N, Behera SK. Prescribing exercise for women. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine. 2013;6(2):164-172.

4 Yeom 2009 - Yeom HA, Keller C, Fleury J. Interventions for promoting mobility in community-dwelling older adults. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. 2009;21(2):95-100.

5 Williams 2008 - Williams DM, Matthews C, Rutt C, Napolitano MA, Marcus BH. Interventions to increase walking behaviour. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2008;40(7):S567-S573.

6 Hayashino 2012 - Hayashino Y, Jackson JL, Fukumori N, Nakamura F, Fukuhara S. Effects of supervised exercise on lipid profiles and blood pressure control in people with type 2 diabetes mellitus: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice. 2012;98(3):349-360.

7 FirstHealth-EIM - FirstHealth Fitness. Exercise is medicine (EIM): Frequently asked questions.

8 Florida hospital-EIM - Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel. Exercise is medicine (EIM).

9 ETMC-EIM - East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System (ETMC). Exercise is medicine program (EIM).

10 IGG-Park prescriptions 2010 - Institute at the Golden Gate (IGG). Park prescriptions: Profiles and resources for good health from the great outdoors.

11 NRPA-Prescribing parks - National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Prescribing parks for better health: Success stories.

12 BMC-Prescribe a bike - Boston Medical Center (BMC). America's Essential Hospitals: Prescribe-a-Bike gives patients control over access, exercise.

13 NJ AB 1569 - New Jersey Assembly Bill 1569. Introduced in the 2014 session: Park prescription program authorizing medical practitioners to prescribe free state park access passes to patients with obesity-related conditions.

14 ALR-Wheeler 2014 - Wheeler K, Razani N, Bashir Z. Park prescriptions in practice: The community driven way. 2014 Active Living Research (ALR) Annual Conference. 2014.