15/10/2013 08:39 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Prescribing Exercise Key to Defusing 'Ticking Mental Health Time Bomb'

If you woke up this morning and felt anxious about your day, or struggled through your commute feeling blue, you're not alone. New research from Nuffield Health has revealed almost 23 million UK adults (44 per cent) now experience anxiety symptoms at least once a week, and for one in five of us anxiety is a daily obstacle. The research also showed that almost two fifths (39 per cent) of people now experience low mood, an early indicator of depression, at least once a week.

These statistics, sadly, don't surprise me. I see time and again the affects of poor mental health on patients at my GP surgery as people struggle to cope with pressures from work, family and relationships. Whilst it can be reassuring to know you're not alone if you're one of the millions of people suffering from low mood or anxiety, these figures show that as a nation we're potentially sitting on a ticking mental health time bomb. This impacts not only our health and happiness, but the economy too; 29 per cent (almost 15 million UK adults) of people we talked to said their low mood or anxiety is so consuming that they struggle to, or cannot, work.

Yet, when it comes to addressing this deep seated issue we know that GPs are struggling. Limited patient contact time and a reliance on traditional prescriptions mean considering options, like exercise, is rarely happening. In fact GPs are 46 times more likely to prescribe medication than explore medically proven alternative options, like exercise, despite our research showing the majority of patients would prefer not to be offered pills as the default option when presenting with low level symptoms.

The compelling evidence - from respected sources such as Mind, the Department of Health, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and the Mental Health Foundation - that physical activity can play an important role in both treating and alleviating early symptoms of mental ill health isn't sufficiently filtering through to frontline and primary care services.

That's why Nuffield Health are calling for all GPs to treat mental health as they would any other condition that can benefit from treatment with exercise - like chronic heart disease, diabetes and obesity, for example. We are encouraging GPs to take a 'diagnose, consider exercise, refer, treat' approach to physical activity when patients present with early signs of mental ill health.

We can also start to take more control over how we feel ourselves by thinking about manageable changes we can make; to our diet, our sleeping patterns and our exercise levels to boost our mood. This isn't about making huge changes, but instead taking small steps to improve your wellbeing. This can include cutting down on your alcohol consumption, reducing stimulants like sugar and caffeinated drinks before bed and building up your activity levels. We know how challenging it can be to make lifestyle changes stick. So, building up your exercise levels slowly and with professional support where needed can really make a difference. Take a walk outside in the fresh air, tackle some gardening or join a fitness class that you might enjoy, like yoga or ballet - it can all boost your mood and you might even find a new interest!

To really address our nation's mental health, change is crucial; that means it must be considered on par with physical health by all of us, and we should approach our own wellbeing and address treatment in the same way too.