Burden of disease is a measure of the years of healthy life lost from living with ill health or dying prematurely from disease and injury. This includes how much risk factors contribute to this burden.
Physical inactivity is the 9th leading preventable cause of ill health and premature death, responsible for 2.5% of total disease burden in Australia, in 2018 (AIHW 2021).
Physical inactivity increases the risk of many diseases and is causally linked to the burden from type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer, dementia, coronary heart disease and strokes, as well as uterine and breast cancer in females.
Physical inactivity contributes to (AIHW 2021):
- 20% of type 2 diabetes total disease burden.
- 16% of coronary heart disease burden.
- 16% of the uterine cancer burden.
- 12% of bowel cancer burden.
- 12% of dementia burden.
- 9.2% of stroke burden.
- 3.2% of breast cancer burden.
Physical inactivity also contributes to 8,253 deaths (5.2% of total deaths) (AIHW 2021).
For more information on the disease burden due to physical inactivity, see Burden of disease.
The relationship between public health measures designed to address COVID-19 and physical activity is complex.
Restrictions on some activities and gathering sizes commenced in March 2020 in Australia. During early April to early May 2020, data from the 2020 ABS Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey showed more Australians aged 18 and over reported increasing (25%) than decreasing (20%) their time spent on exercise or other physical activity than they did prior to the restrictions (in March 2020). In late June 2020, a similar proportion of people reported increasing (21%) or decreasing (19%) their time spent on exercise or other physical activity (ABS 2020a, ABS 2020b).
Data also suggests that the type of physical activities that adults participated in changed between April to June 2020. Participation in recreational and fitness activities (for example, home exercise, bike riding and recreational walking) were least impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, while participation in organised and team sports (for example, football/soccer, basketball and gym workouts) decreased over this period (AusPlay 2021).
In June 2020, as a national three step plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions was implemented, there were a small proportion of people who reported going to a gym, boot camp or swimming pool (5.5%) and playing sports or attending training sessions (12%) (ABS 2020d). In August 2020, those who went to a gym, boot camp or swimming pool increased to 16% and those who played sports or attended a training session had increased to 18% (ABS 2020c).
As Australians adapt to the ‘COVID-normal’, data are starting to show evidence that the participation habit of Australians are changing as well as their motivation for exercising, with an increase in people being motivated by mental health benefits (AusPlay 2022). Compared to pre-pandemic, fewer Australians are relying solely on sporting clubs or organised venues for exercise. Activities such as walking (recreational) and bushwalking have increased in participation in both 2020 and 2021 (AusPlay 2022).
Two years on from the initial restrictions, fewer Australian adults reported exercising at a gym or playing an organised sport one or more times per week (25% in June 2021) than they did prior to the restrictions in March 2020 (38%) (ABS 2021). Although by February 2022, this rose to 30% (ABS 2022a).
For more information on how the pandemic has affected the population's health in the context of longer-term trends, see ‘Chapter 2 Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.
Visit Physical activity for more on this topic.
About the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Health Surveys
This web report uses data from the following surveys from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS):
- 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS).
- 2017–18 NHS.
- 2011–12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (NNPAS).
The National Health Survey is a series of surveys designed to collect a range of information about the health of Australians, including:
- prevalence of long-term health conditions.
- health risk factors such as smoking, fruit and vegetable consumption, alcohol consumption and exercise.
- use of health services such as consultations with health practitioners and actions people have recently taken for their health.
- demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.
The most recent 2020–21 NHS was conducted from August 2020 to June 2021. As it was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure the safety of interviewers and respondents, the survey was collected via online, self-completed forms (previous iterations of the NHS was conducted via face-to-face interviews).
Non-response is usually reduced through interviewer follow-up of households who have not responded. As this was not possible during lockdown periods, there were lower response rates than previous NHS cycles, which impacted sample representativeness for some sub-populations.
Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns might also have had direct or indirect impacts on people’s usual behaviour over the 2020–21 period, and the module used to collect information on physical activity was changed as part of the NHS 2020–21. Due to these impacts and changes, the 2020–21 NHS is considered a break in series and should only be used for point-in-time national analysis only.
For this reason, the 2020–21 NHS is used to report physical activity data at national level only. Data on physical activity variation by population groups uses the 2017–18 NHS; and data on trends in physical activity across time are presented from 2007–08 to 2017–18.
For more information, please refer to the ABS National Health Survey: First results methodology.