Ahead of a daylong conference Thursday on tackling obesity in primary care clinics, the Royal College of General Practitioners called on the government to consider tax breaks to make exercise more accessible and affordable to everybody.
The group, the standard bearer for general medical practice, also urged the government to get healthier food into schools and workplaces.
"With about 22 percent of the U.K. adult population obese, this is an issue of growing concern to the medical community," said Dr. Graham Archard, chair of the college's clinical network. "More needs to be done to ensure sport is available to all. Most people can't afford sports such as tennis at the moment."
"One idea might be to offer tax relief on exercise — after all, obese people are likely to use more National Health Service resources than fit and healthy people," Archard said.
The conference takes place as health officials are finalizing a new public health strategy, which is expected to be unveiled later this year.
The United States has the biggest proportion of fat people in the industrialized world — with nearly two-thirds of adults overweight or obese — but experts say the ranks are swelling fastest in Britain, where obesity rates among adults have almost quadrupled over the last 25 years.
Many European countries are close behind, with the problem particularly bad in Greece, Cyprus and the Czech Republic.
Britain already has an "exercise on prescription" program, whereby doctors can refer patients to supervised exercise programs in gyms or local leisure centers. There are no official statistics tracking how successful the initiative has been since it was launched in 2001, but a survey conducted last year suggested that 89 percent of local health authorities offered exercise on prescription.
Each local health authority handles the program differently and services range from discounted rates at sports centers to free trial memberships.
However, the International Obesity Task Force, a coalition of scientists working in obesity research, prevention and treatment, said the British program was largely "cosmetic" and not widely used.
"A three-month free ticket to a sports center is not going to solve a lifetime problem," said Neville Rigby, policy coordinator at the obesity organization. "Obese people need intensive support and follow-up."
Tax breaks for exercise are a step in the right direction and can encourage people to be active, but the approach is too limited.
"Everybody needs to be more active and it has to be built into the environment, right across the society," Rigby said. "Tax breaks tend to benefit people who can afford it anyway. Many people can't afford the sports club membership fees for which they would get a tax break."