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AUSactive: Physical activity for holistic health should be everyone’s priority

Findings released earlier this year by World Obesity show that without significant action, more than half of the world’s population will be overweight or obese by 2035.

With more than two-thirds of Australian adults classed as overweight or obese, more needs to be done to prioritise physical health in communities and through government initiatives.

Inactivity and productivity loss costs the Australian healthcare system an estimated $15.6 billion annually (not taking into account the impact of COVID-19), and separately costs the national healthcare system almost $3 billion every year. It is also estimated $9.9 billion is lost in productivity due to physical inactivity.

Further, recent research from the University of South Australia has found physical activity should be a “mainstay approach” for doctors treating patients with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychological distress.

To put physical activity at the top of the agenda, Australia’s leading health and fitness member association, AUSactive, has developed recommendations that focus on the overall health and well-being of everyone in the community - that will also save the economy billions of dollars annually.

AUSactive CEO Barrie Elvish said if state and federal governments considered and endorsed these recommendations, the nation’s physical, economic and health system would be on a strong path towards positive change.

“Australians are not moving enough, full stop,” Mr Elvish said.

“Physical inactivity is the second leading risk factor contributing to chronic disease and obesity in Australia and is placing an unsustainable burden on the wellbeing of Australians, as well as our health system.

“Our recommendations provide ongoing solutions to the health crisis that will improve the physical and mental health of Australians and save the government significant funding by preventing chronic disease in the first place, and mitigating conditions for those who are experiencing health problems.”

The evidence speaks for itself

Mr Elvish said the University of South Australia's research is evidence of the positive impacts regular activity can have on an individual’s health and wellbeing.

“With one in eight people worldwide living with a mental disorder, and one in five Australians experiencing a mental disorder in the last 12 months, the research set out to understand the impact and results exercise can achieve for patients,” Mr Elvish said.

“The worldwide cost of mental health disorders is set to rise from $2.3 trillion to $6 trillion by 2030 and while the benefit of exercise for depression and anxiety is generally recognised, it is often overlooked in the management of these conditions.”

The University of South Australia’s ‘Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews’ at a glance:

  • 97 studies passed the strict inclusion criteria (out of 1,280), and the results were combined.

  • The results from over 128,119 participants were included.

  • Study populations included healthy adults, people with mental health disorders and people with various chronic diseases.

  • The largest benefits were seen in people with depression, HIV and kidney disease, in pregnant and postpartum women, and in healthy individuals.

  • Higher-intensity physical activity was associated with greater improvements in symptoms

Mr Elvish said the research highlighted the important role the Australian health and fitness industry can play in preventative health and treatment.

“The future well-being of our communities and our health system is about looking at a broader range of options, beyond just prescribing a pill,” Mr Elvish said.

“Our industry has a very important role to play, and while many people already utilise a personal trainer, visit a gym or take a class, going to the gym is more than just looking good, it’s about feeling good.”

AUSactive’s recommendations to prioritise physical activity for all Australians

  1. Prevention is better than a cure (and significantly cheaper) To reduce Australia’s growing rates of chronic disease and poor mental health and consequent demands on the health system, the Federal Government must accelerate its current preventative health strategy and be more proactive.

  2. Create a specific preventative health portfolio that connects health, sport and recreation ministries. A minister having specific responsibility for preventative health would have the mandate to address chronic illness and poor mental health in the community, particularly where health inequalities exist due to physical inactivity with lower socioeconomic groups and regional and remote communities.

  3. Remove allied health barriers Registered, educated and experienced exercise professionals should be recognised under Medicare to deliver safe, evidence-based exercise programs to prevent chronic disease and rehabilitate people with chronic conditions to improve their health.

  4. Existing government health programs such as NDIS and My Aged Care should be widened in scope to include preventative health programs. Registered, educated and experienced exercise professionals should also be recognised under My Aged Care and under the NDIS to deliver safe, evidence-based exercise programs.

  5. Activity incentive programs should be made available to all Australians across a broader range of physical activities. To encourage behavioural change, research indicates that two-thirds of Australians would utilise vouchers to get physically active. The return on investment to the health system is between $3 and $4 per person for every $1 spent.

  6. Step up commitment to the World Health Organisation’s Global Action Plan on Physical Activity (GAPPA). The former Coalition government signed up to the GAPPA target in November 2018 with a commitment to get 15 per cent more inactive Australians more active by 2030; unfortunately, no progress has been made to date.

  7. Partner and stakeholder legacy support As part of government funding for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, relevant organisations and associations responsible for governing and coordinating these global sporting events should be required to implement an ongoing legacy of increased physical activity, not just infrastructure, as a result of the event’s exposure and community interest.

  8. Private health fund reform Private health funds are fully aware of the health and financial benefits that come from preventative health activities. Accordingly, they should be given full discretion as to which activities and services they deem will be eligible for member rebates.

  9. Reallocation of the health budget Prioritise funding for ‘preventative’ rather than ‘reactive’ chronic health disease associations through a national physical activity strategy utilising the experience and networks of community, industry associations and grassroots organisations.

  10. Tax deductions or fringe benefits tax (FBT) exemptions for bona fide physical activities. Just as the government uses the tax system to encourage private health insurance, it should do likewise for encouraging exercise.

  11. Rational consideration of a sugar/fat tax with the proceeds used to fund a long-term public health campaign. Proceeds from a sugar tax and/or fat tax could then be used to fund a national public preventative health campaign encouraging ongoing physical activity. This will improve awareness of the risks of physical inactivity and the benefits of getting active.

  12. Take action to address the skills shortage in the exercise and physical activity sector. Funding support should also be extended to all Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) registered vocational education providers, whether TAFE or private RTO, for delivery of the courses under the Fitness Training Package, as well as courses in the areas of pilates, yoga and aqua exercise.


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