Physical inactivity increases the risk of a range of diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. More than half of Australian adults are either not active at all or do not meet the recommended guidelines (ABS 2013). The impact of both these factors was quantified in the Australian Burden of Disease Study (ABDS) 2011 which showed that physical inactivity is one of the leading risk factors of disease burden (AIHW 2016a). Disease burden measures the health loss from living with, or dying prematurely from, a disease or injury.

This report provides further information on physical inactivity as a risk factor for disease burden in Australia. It updates and extends the findings from the ABDS 2011 to include a revised list of diseases linked to physical inactivity, updated estimates of their association, and a broader definition of physical activity. Scenario modelling is used to show the potential benefits of increasing physical activity across Australia.

Health impact of physical inactivity

The enhanced analysis in this report indicates that 2.6% of the total disease burden in 2011 was due to physical inactivity. This finding, similar for both men and women, has been revised downwards from the 5.0% estimate reported in ABDS 2011 due to updated methods.

When physical inactivity is combined with overweight and obesity, the burden increases to 9%—equal with tobacco smoking, the leading risk factor for disease burden in Australia.

Health benefits from an extra 15–30 minute long brisk walk, 5 days per week

An extra 15 minutes of brisk walking, 5 days each week, could reduce disease burden due to physical inactivity by an estimated 13%. If this time increased to 30 minutes, the burden could be reduced by 26%. All ages would benefit, particularly people aged 65 and over.

The report suggests that small sustained increases in daily exercise, particularly for those who are sedentary, could produce sizeable future health gains for the population. Leisure and transport are the main ways people are physically active, making them best placed for targeted interventions to increase physical activity in the population.

Physical inactivity responsible for 10%–20% of disease burden for related diseases

Physical inactivity was linked to 7 diseases in this study, and found to contribute to substantial proportions of the disease burden:

  • 19% for diabetes
  • 16% for bowel cancer and 16% for uterine cancer
  • 14% for dementia
  • 11% for breast cancer and 11% for coronary heart disease
  • 10% for stroke.

Decreasing burden with increasing socioeconomic position

People in the lowest socioeconomic group experienced rates of disease burden due to physical inactivity at 1.7 times that of the highest socioeconomic group. There was a clear pattern of decreasing burden with increasing socioeconomic position.

Slight reduction in physical inactivity burden over time

The rate of disease burden due to physical inactivity reduced by 12% between 2003 and 2011, after accounting for population increase and ageing.