Physical activity is any body movement produced by skeletal muscles that uses energy (WHO 2018). Low levels of physical activity are a major risk factor for chronic conditions. People who are not active enough have a greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and dementia. Being physically active improves the immune system and mental and musculoskeletal health, and reduces other risk factors such as overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. Physical activity can also improve symptoms and/or delay or halt the progression of a number of conditions or the onset of associated diseases and complications (Pedersen and Saltin 2015). 

Being physically active is important across all ages and contributes to healthy growth and development in children and adolescents (WHO 2018). Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians are evidence-based recommendations that outline the minimum amount of physical activity required for health benefits (Department of Health 2021). The Guidelines recognise that different amounts and types of physical activity are required across the life span for optimal health.

This page focuses on the physical activity component of the Guidelines measurable through national health surveys.

Physical activity guidelines for adults

Physical activity can include:

  • going for a walk, jog or bike ride
  • playing a sport
  • going swimming, or taking a class at the gym.

Adults aged 18–64 should be active on most (preferably all) days, accumulating at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity each week (or an equivalent combination of both).

People aged 65 and over should accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all days (Department of Health 2021).

See Physical Activity for Adults (aged 18–64 years) and Physical Activity for older Australians (65 years and older)

How common is insufficient physical activity?

Insufficient physical activity for 2020–21

Data for 2020–21 are based on information self-reported by the participants of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS).

Previous versions of the NHS have primarily been administered by trained ABS interviewers and were conducted face-to-face. The 2020–21 NHS was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. To maintain the safety of survey respondents and ABS Interviewers, the survey was collected via online, self-completed forms.

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 changes, comparisons to previous insufficient physical activity data over time are not recommended.

Based on self-reported data from the 2020–21 NHS:

  • Almost 3 in 10 adults (27%) aged 18–64 did not perform at least 150 minutes of physical activity in the past week, and a similar number (30%) did not perform physical activity over 5 or more days.
  • 1 in 2 (50%) of those aged 65 and over (47% of men and 52% of women) were insufficiently active, that is they did not participate in at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day over 5 or more days in the past week (ABS 2022b).

The remainder of this page reports on data from the NHS 2017–18 and prior releases.

Adults

Information on physical activity for adults is based on self-reported data from the ABS 2017–18 NHS. The survey relies on people accurately remembering their physical activity levels, which can introduce recall bias and lead to over or underestimations of the amount of physical activity completed.

Insufficient physical activity is defined here as:

  • for adults aged 18–64: not completing 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity (where time spent on vigorous activity is multiplied by 2) across 5 or more days a week
  • for adults aged 65 and over: not completing 30 minutes or more of physical activity on at least 5 days each week.

Based on self-reported data from the 2017–18 NHS, more than half (55%) of adults didn't participate in sufficient physical activity (AIHW analysis of ABS 2019). Women were more likely than men to be insufficiently active (59% compared with 50%).

The rate of insufficient physical activity generally increases with age – less than half of those aged 18–24 were insufficiently active (41% of men and 48% of women) compared with more than two-thirds of those aged 65 and over (69% of men and 75% of women) (Figure 1).
 

This figure shows that the prevalence of insufficient physical activity increases with age for both males and females. Among those aged 18–24, 41% of men and 48% of women were insufficiently active, while for those aged 65 and over 69% of men and 75% of women were insufficiently active.

Trends

There was a slight decrease in the percentage of adults who were insufficiently active between 2007–08 and 2017–18, after adjusting for age differences – from 69% to 65% (AIHW 2019). However, rates did not change significantly between 2014–15 and 2017–18. These data exclude workplace physical activity as information on this was collected in 2017–18 only.

Children and young people

Physical activity guidelines for children and young people

Physical activity for children includes:

  • energetic play (such as climbing, running, jumping and dancing)
  • going for a swim, walk, jog or bike ride
  • playing a sport.

Additionally, screen time during childhood can have long-term impacts on a child’s development and should be limited (Department of Health 2021). For school-aged children, this does not include screen time needed for school work.

Children aged 2–5 (who have not yet started full-time schooling) should spend at least 180 minutes a day on a variety of physical activities, including energetic play, with no more than 60 minutes of screen time per day.

Children and young people aged 5–17 should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day and no more than 120 minutes of recreational screen time per day (Department of Health 2021).

See Physical Activity Guidelines for infants, toddler and preschoolers (birth to 5 years) and Physical Activity Guidelines for children and young people (5–17 years).

The most recent data available on physical activity and sedentary screen time for children and young people aged 2 and over is from the ABS 2011–12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. However, under the Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study, the ABS National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey is scheduled to be conducted again in 2023.

In 2011–12, 83% of children aged 2–5, 88% of children aged 5–12, and 98% of young people aged 13–17 had not met the physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines on all 7 days in the previous week (AIHW 2018).

See Physical activity across the life stages for more information on the physical activity and sedentary behaviour of Australian children and young people.

See also Health of children and Health of young people.

Health impact

Burden of disease refers to the quantified impact of living with and dying prematurely from a disease or injury. Burden of disease analysis estimates the contribution of various risk factors to disease burden.

In 2018, 2.5% of the total disease burden in Australia could have been avoided if all people in Australia were sufficiently active (as defined in the Australian Burden of Disease Study) (AIHW 2021).

The total burden due to insufficient physical activity for associated diseases was:

  • 20% for type 2 diabetes
  • 16% for coronary heart disease
  • 16% for uterine cancer
  • 12% for bowel cancer
  • 12% for dementia
  • 9.2% for stroke
  • 3.2% for breast cancer.

See Burden of disease.

Variation between population groups

See Determinants of health for Indigenous Australians for information on insufficient physical activity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

There were no significant differences in the prevalence of insufficient physical activity between remoteness areas for adults in 2017–18, after adjusting for age differences (AIHW 2019). However, there were differences between socioeconomic areas – 63% of adults in the lowest socioeconomic areas were insufficiently active compared with 48% in the highest, after adjusting for age (Figure 2). See Rural and remote health and Health across socioeconomic groups.
 

This graph shows that the prevalence of physical activity was similar across remoteness areas—Major cities (54%), Inner regional (53%), and Outer regional and remote (55%). It also shows the prevalence of insufficient physical activity increased as disadvantage increased—from 48% for quintile 5 (highest socioeconomic areas) to 63% for quintile 1 (the lowest socioeconomic areas).

Insufficient physical activity during COVID-19

Data over the COVID-19 pandemic period are showing how Australia’s response to COVID-19 has impacted people’s physical activity levels. Overall, 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. Between April and June 2020, data from the 2020 ABS Household Impacts of COVID Survey showed that a similar proportion of Australians aged 18 and over reported increasing (21%) or decreasing (19%) their total time spent on exercise or other physical activity than they did prior to the restrictions (in March 2020) (ABS 2020a, 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 (Clearinghouse for Sport 2021).

One year 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.    

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on insufficient physical activity, see:

Visit Physical activity for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2019) Microdata: National Health Survey 2017–18, AIHW analysis of detailed microdata, accessed 6 June 2019.

ABS (2020a) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 29 Apr–4 May 2020, ABS website, accessed 20 January 2022.

ABS (2020b) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 24–29 June 2020, ABS website, accessed 20 January 2022.

ABS (2022a) Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, February 2022, ABS website, accessed 21 March 2022.

ABS (2022b) Physical activity, ABS website, accessed 21 March 2022.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) (2018) Physical activity across the life stages, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 10 January 2022.

AIHW (2019) Insufficient physical activity, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 10 January 2022.

AIHW (2021) Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018: Interactive data on risk factor burden, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 10 January 2022.

Clearinghouse for Sport (2021) Ongoing impact of COVID-19 on sport and physical activity participation June 2021 update, Clearinghouse for Sport, accessed 20 January 2022.

Department of Health (2021) Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians, Department of Health, Australian Government, accessed 10 January 2022.

Pedersen BK and Saltin B (2015) ‘Exercise as medicine—evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in 26 different chronic diseases’, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(S3):1–72, doi: 10.1111/sms.12581.

WHO (World Health Organization) (2018) Global action plan on physical activity 2018–2030: more active people for a healthier world, WHO, accessed 10 January 2022.