Whether you’re working in the fitness industry already or want to get into it, you may have heard of exercise referral. Put simply, it is the use of physical activity to improve someone’s health, wellbeing and overall quality of life. 

But what exactly is the exercise referral process? We’ll take you through a step-by-step guide to the 6 stages of an exercise referral scheme, as well as who it is aimed at and more! 

This article will cover:

Exercise referral is one of the most rewarding fitness jobs out there, so why not become an exercise referral specialist yourself? After completing your Level 2 Gym Instructing qualification, you can progress onto our Level 3 Exercise Referral Course and begin an exciting career.

Alternatively, you can browse our full range of courses by downloading our free course prospectus here

What Is Exercise Referral?

Before we describe the exercise referral process, let’s first clarify what exactly we mean by exercise referral. 

Exercise referral, also known as GP exercise referral, is the process of a medical or health professional referring a patient to a fitness programme. The overall aim of the exercise referral process is to improve a patient’s health through exercise, and to encourage them to lead a more active lifestyle in the future. 

A patient will generally be enrolled on an exercise referral scheme if they have a health condition which could be improved by physical activity. Common health conditions which are often prescribed exercise referral are asthma, arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes.

It is important to note that exercise referral is more than just advising a patient to exercise more! Each exercise referral programme is designed by a fitness specialist and is specific to each patient’s individual needs.  

GP exercise referral can also be used for patients with mental health conditions too, such as anxiety and depression. 

Exercise referral specialists will therefore work with a range of clients with different health conditions, meaning that they have to tailor each programme to every patients’ specific needs. They will also work with a range of health professionals, from NHS staff to private healthcare professionals and medical practitioners. 

To be an exercise referral specialist, you will need to have completed a Level 3 Exercise Referral qualification. Here at OriGym, we offer this course online, so you can start your dream career from the comfort of your own home.

Given the specialist knowledge involved in the GP exercise referral process, you should make sure that your course provider is accredited by CIMSPA to guarantee that you are educated to the highest standard. All of our courses are CIMSPA and REPs accredited, which is what makes OriGym the leading fitness course provider in the UK.

If this sounds like the job for you, check out our step-by-step guide to how to become an exercise referral specialist and start your dream career today.

What Is The Exercise Referral Process: The 6 Stages

Now that you have a general idea of what an exercise referral scheme is, you may now be wondering, what is the exercise referral process and what exactly does it entail? 

We’ll describe the exercise referral process, taking you through each of the 6 stages involved, from the initial referral to the final assessment, so that you have a complete understanding of how it all works!

#1- Patient is referred to an exercise referral specialist  

The first stage of the exercise referral process is an obvious one- the patient is referred to an exercise referral specialist. 

This happens when a GP or other medical professional deems that a patient’s health conditions would benefit or be improved by a structured fitness program. It can either be funded by the NHS, or can have a small cost if done through a private healthcare provider. 

As we have mentioned, this is more than simply advising them to ‘do more exercise’. It can be seen as a prescription; just like a doctor would prescribe medicine to a patient, the prescription here is exercise!

It should also be noted that patients will not be enrolled in an exercise referral scheme if they are sedentary or inactive, but otherwise healthy. Someone is only eligible for the scheme if they are sedentary but have a health condition which puts them at risk. We will discuss the types of people exercise referral can treat later in this article. 

Enrolling a patient in an exercise referral scheme may either be their only treatment, or it could be alongside a series of other treatments such as medication, therapy and physiotherapy. 


#2- Initial health assessment

Once a client has been assigned an exercise referral specialist, they will meet and the specialist will carry out an initial health assessment with their new client. 

The aim here is similar to when a personal trainer carries out a postural assessment with a new client; it is to gain as much information as possible about the client so that they can create a program that is tailored to their specific needs. 

Although the GP or health professional will have passed on any medical notes and information about the patient, this is a good chance for the specialist to meet their client on a personal basis and build up a relationship with them. 

During this assessment, the specialist will determine the client’s current activity levels. For example, whether they already do any physical activity, and whether their job is sedentary (e.g. in an office), or if they are in a more active profession. 

This is also one of the most important stages of the GP exercise referral process as it is when the specialist will learn more about the client’s health condition and the reasons that they have been referred. 

They may ask the client questions such as how their condition affects their daily life, and establish any physical or mental limitations that they should consider when designing the program. For example, if someone has a heart condition, high intensity aerobic exercise may not be suitable. 

#3- Exercise referral specialist creates the program

After the initial assessment, the fitness specialist will then go away and plan the exercise referral process and design a fitness program for their client.

This involves establishing things such as a weekly schedule for the client, where they will train and how often. 

Just like a personal trainer would, the exercise referral specialist will also establish an overall aim or goal for the program. They will often use the SMART fitness goal criteria to make sure that the goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. 

They will then present this program to the patient in another appointment, in which they will take them through the program and explain how to use any equipment involved.

This is arguably the most important stage of the exercise referral process, as the program has to be carefully designed in order to consider the patient’s specific health conditions- arguably more so than a personal training program does. That’s why OriGym’s exercise referral course equips every student with all the knowledge, skills and expertise you’ll need to plan a successful exercise referral program with confidence. 

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#4- The exercise referral scheme begins

When asking the question, ‘what is the exercise referral process?’, this is perhaps the stage that most people will think of! 

A typical exercise referral program is 8-12 weeks long, and can be either home or gym-based, depending on the client’s accessibility and location. 

Monitoring the patient’s progress is an important part of this stage of the GP exercise referral process, as it is a chance to see if the program is effective and they are keeping up with it. If not, the specialist will make any changes and adapt the program accordingly, always with the patient’s safety in mind. 

An exercise referral session is much the same as a personal training session. They are anywhere between 30-90 minutes long, and involve a trainer supervising and guiding the client through a series of exercises. 

The exercises involved in these sessions will be designed specially with the client’s health condition in mind. This means that certain exercises may be ‘out of bounds’, or traditional exercises may have to be modified to accommodate their needs. 

#6- End of the program

When describing the exercise referral program, you may not think the end of the program is an important stage to mention. However, the follow-up of any exercise program is arguably just as important as the program itself!

At the end of the exercise referral scheme, the exercise referral specialist and the client will meet for a final assessment. During this appointment, it will be decided whether the patient has made adequate progress, or if they need to carry on and extend the program. 

Referring back to the initial assessment, they will be able to see if the patient has made progress in the areas that they were aiming to work on. 

The way that progress is measured will depend on the nature of the patient’s health condition. For example, if a patient needed to lose a stone, this can be easily measured by weighing them before and after the program. 

However, if a patient was referred to a specialist for mental health reasons, their progress can be harder to measure. In this case, they may then be referred back to a medical professional who will assess if the program has improved their condition. 

Even if they have completed the exercise referral scheme successfully, they will still be given advice and guidance on how to carry on exercising and maintain the progress they have made! 

For example, they may give them some tips on how to maintain weight loss, or some schemes may even offer incentives such as a gym membership discount to encourage patients to keep up with exercise. 

The Exercise Referral Process: Who Is It For?

So, now that we’ve answered ‘what is the exercise referral process?’, let’s take a more detailed look into who exactly an exercise referral scheme is for. 

An exercise referral scheme is typically aimed at people who have health conditions that puts them at risk, and that could be alleviated or improved from doing more physical activity. 

However, due to the nature of their condition, they may find it difficult to exercise safely or in the correct way. This is why an exercise referral specialist needs to carefully design a program that takes these factors into consideration. 

As such, exercise referral clients are typically not fitness professionals. However, they may well be ex-professionals, or people who have been unable to do sport because of their health condition and are using the scheme as a means of recovery. 

Exercise referral clients have typically been referred to a specialist by their GP- either through the NHS or privately. This can therefore mean that exercise referral clients are less motivated than personal training clients, as they have been prescribed the sessions for health reasons, rather than seeking them out themselves voluntarily. 

That said, someone can also refer themselves to a private exercise referral scheme, if they feel that they want to be more active but don’t know what to do. 

However, an exercise referral scheme is primarily for helping clients with specific health issues, and they will still need to be referred by a health professional. If someone is simply looking to improve their fitness levels on a casual basis, this is more likely the role of a personal trainer, not an exercise referral specialist! 

How To Become An Exercise Referral Specialist

If helping people improve their health, wellbeing and general quality of life through exercise sounds appealing, then a career in GP exercise referral could be for you! 

The first step to becoming an exercise referral specialist is to take a Level 2 Gym Instructing Course. You’ll cover topics such as human anatomy, physiology and nutrition, which will stand you in good stead for a career in exercise referral. 

Once you have this baseline qualification, you can then go on to take a Level 3 Exercise Referral Course. If you take your course with OriGym, you can guarantee that you’ll qualify with a strong foundation of knowledge of the exercise referral process and the skills to succeed.

During the course, you’ll learn all about the UK healthcare system and become familiar with the most common health conditions that you will encounter during the GP exercise referral process. You’ll also get practical experience in creating and delivering tailored exercise programs for a range of clients. 

Plus, since all of OriGym’s fitness courses are accredited by CIMSPA, you can be sure that you are receiving the highest quality of teaching in the industry!

Once you have qualified as an exercise referral specialist, a world of opportunities will open up to you in the NHS, private healthcare, fitness clubs and more. 

Check out our article on how to become an exercise referral specialist for a more detailed step-by-step guide on how to start this lucrative career. 


Is the exercise referral process effective?

After answering the question ‘what is the exercise referral process?’, you may now be wondering whether they are really effective. The short answer is that yes, they are! 

There has been much research into the effectiveness of exercise referral schemes. For example, this study by the National Institute For Health Research found that people on exercise referral schemes were 12% more likely to achieve 90-150 minutes of exercise a week, compared to those who were not on the scheme. 

The research also found that people on the scheme did more exercise per week than those who were simply advised to exercise. This indicates that the scheme is indeed effective in encouraging patients to do more exercise as a means of improving their health! 

This success of exercise referral schemes is only growing even further, making it one of the best careers to get into right now!

What is the difference between the exercise referral process and personal training?

As we have discussed in this article, there are some similarities between the exercise referral process and personal training. 

Personal trainers and exercise referral specialists do indeed share similar responsibilities, such as creating a training program, working with clients, motivating them and monitoring their progress. 

Because of the similarities between the two roles, many people progress from personal training to exercise referral. Exercise referral is therefore a great option if you are a PT looking for the next step in your career!

However, the exercise referral process involves a more specialist knowledge of certain health conditions in order to work with these kinds of clients. As such, another difference between the personal training and exercise referral is that exercise referral clients generally have more specific needs to consider when designing a fitness program. 

Before You Go! 

So, if you were wondering, ‘what is the exercise referral process?’, we hope that you now know what each stage of the scheme entails! 

If you’re now feeling inspired to become an exercise referral specialist yourself, taking your Level 2 Gym Instructing Qualification will equip you with all the knowledge and skills you need for a career in exercise referral. 

If you already have this baseline qualification, take your Level 3 Exercise Referral course with OriGym today and become a specialist in just 8 weeks! 

You can also download our free course prospectus here to browse the full range of courses we offer. 


Campbell F, Holmes M, Everson-Hock E, et al. A systematic review and economic evaluation of exercise referral schemes in primary care: a short report. Health Technol Assess. 2015;19(60):1-110.

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About the Author: Alice Williams

Alice OriGym Author
Alice graduated with a First-Class degree in French and Linguistics from the University of Leeds in 2019. As part of her degree, she spent a year living in France where she worked for a lifestyle blog, gaining professional experience in both translation and content writing.  Alice is also a qualifiied yoga teacher, allowing her write from a place of expertise when it comes to yoga! When she’s not writing or practicing yoga, she also loves running, cooking and music! 

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