The online version of the British Journal of Sports Medicine reports that the curriculum for physical activity in UK medical schools is “sparse or non-existent.”

This gap in knowledge means that future doctors will have insufficient knowledge to effectively promote physical activity to their patients, which results in a failure to help combating serious diseases that are linked to insufficient exercise according to the study authors.

The findings are based on survey results from information supplied either by the curriculum lead or director for medical studies from 31 UK medical schools. The respondents were asked about the form and content of key aspects of promoting physical activity education according to national guidelines, and the total amount of time allocated for teaching basic science and health benefits of physical activity for undergraduates. Other questions included naming the specific teaching modules in which physical activity education appeared and whether the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO’s) guidance on physical activity that covers all age groups and which was published last July, was featured anywhere in the curriculum.

The authors stated that the responses revealed “some alarming findings, showing that there is widespread omission of basic teaching elements.”

All medical schools responded, yet only 4 medical schools (15.5%) included physical activity in each year of their undergraduate course, whilst five schools featured no specific teaching physical activity in their undergraduate courses. Even though all four UK Health Departments endorse the current CMO guidance on physical activity in their course, they were only included in half (15) of the schools.

The authors state that the absence of the current CMO guidance highlights a major gap in undergraduate medical education, such as evidence based clinical guidelines for treating and managing numerous long-term conditions, and is against national policy, which aims to emphasize good health and prevent disease.

According to the responses, the total amount of time spent on teaching physical activity was “minimal”, with just 4 hours on average compared with an average of 109 hours for pharmacology.

Even though there are wide variations amongst specific modules of physical activity, most modules do include in public health, cardiology, respiratory medicine and endocrinology. Out of all medical schools only two reported including health promotion in the community and general practice.

The authors highlight the existence of 39 different clinical guidelines for specific diseases and conditions in which physical activity is used as a method of treatment, and point out that the majority of people are currently living mostly sedentary lives.

The authors conclude:

“A basic understanding of the benefits of physical activity, how to effectively promote it (with behavior change techniques), and combat sedentary behavior for different age groups underpin the ability of future doctors to manage modern non-communicable chronic diseases and follow clinical guidelines.”

They urgently call for medical schools to allocate all medical students with teaching time or physical activity.

Written by Petra Rattue