Lifestyle and risk factors of Australia’s females

The lifestyles females lead can influence how healthy they are in the short and long term. A lifestyle including exercise, a well-balanced diet, and maintaining a healthy body weight, may reduce the risk of poor health. Risk factors such as smoking tobacco, misusing alcohol and illicit substance use, or exposure to violence, may increase the likelihood of poor health.  

Physical activity

Regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of many chronic conditions and injuries. Sport and other forms of physical activity can also improve mental wellbeing and may foster social networks which provide support and opportunities for development.

Sufficient physical activity, for 18–64 year olds, is defined in Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines as accumulating at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week, and being active on most, preferably all, days. The guidelines also recommend that adults complete at least two strength based training sessions each week. The guidelines provide separate recommendations for children (ages 0–5 and 5–12), young people (ages 13–17), and older Australians (ages 65+).

In this section we refer to ‘sufficient activity’ for 18–64 year olds as completing at least 150 minutes of physical activity over 5 or more sessions each week. For females aged 65 and over, ‘sufficient activity’ is completing at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days each week (reported here as 5 or more days).

1 in 2

Australian women aged 18–64 get enough exercise

In 2014–15, 46% of women aged 18–64 exercised sufficiently [1]. Exercise rates were highest among women aged 25–34 (51%) and lowest among women aged 55–64 (41%).

1 in 4 (23%) women aged 65 and over were sufficiently active.

Figure 1: Sufficient physical activity, women aged 18–64, by age-group, 2014-15

The vertical bar chart shows that there was little variation in the percentage of sufficiently active women across the different age groups. The greatest percentage of sufficiently active women were those aged 25–34 with 51%25, and the least sufficiently active were among women aged 55–64 with 41%25.

Note: “Sufficiently active” here refers to having completed at least 150 minutes of physical activity over 5 or more sessions in the previous week

Source: ABS 2015 [1] (Table S1). 

Overweight and obesity

Excess body weight, known as overweight and obesity, is a risk factor for many conditions, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnoea and osteoarthritis. Excess body weight can be measured using the body mass index (BMI).

6 in 10

Australian women are overweight or obese

In 2014–15, almost 6 in 10 women in Australia (56%) were overweight or obese: 29% were overweight, and 27% were obese.

The proportion of women who are overweight or obese differs by population groups [1, 2, 3]: 

  • 33% of young women (aged 18–24) are overweight or obese, compared with 69% of women aged 65–74.
  • 61% of women living in the lowest socioeconomic areas are overweight or obese, compared with 48% of women living in the highest socioeconomic areas.
  • 64% of women living in Outer regional and remote areas are overweight or obese, compared with 53% of women living in Major cities.
  • 73% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were overweight or obese in 2012–13, compared with 55% of non-Indigenous women, after adjusting for differences in age structure.

The proportion who are overweight or obese differs between women and girls—more than half (56%) of women aged 18 or over are overweight or obese, compared with about a quarter (26%) of girls aged 5–17.

Figure 2: BMI, girls aged 5–17 and women aged 18 and over, 2014–15

This figure is comprised of two pie charts, one showing the proportions of girls aged 5–17 in each BMI measurement category, and one showing the proportions of women aged 18 years and over in each BMI measurement category. The first chart shows that the majority of girls aged 5–17 years are normal weight, with 68%25 in this category, 18%25 are overweight, 8%25 are obese, and 6%25 are underweight. The second chart shows that the 2%25 of women aged 18 and over are underweight, 42%25 are normal weight, 29%25 are overweight, and 27%25 are obese.

Note: Girls and women have different cut-offs for BMI.

Source: ABS 2015 [1] (Table S2).

While excess weight is commonly managed using dietary intervention and exercise, for those who are morbidly obese or who are obese and have other conditions related to their excess weight, weight loss surgery may be appropriate.

Weight loss surgery (bariatric surgery) is surgery that aims to help obese patients lose weight and lowers the risk of medical problems associated with obesity. It restricts the amount of food a recipient can eat or alters the process of food digestion so that fewer calories are absorbed.

In 2014–15 females accounted for 79% of hospital separations for weight loss surgery (18,000 separations) compared with 21% for males (4,800 separations) [4].

For more information see Weight loss surgery in Australia 2014–15

Tobacco smoking, alcohol and illicit drugs

Tobacco

Tobacco smoking is the single most preventable cause of poor health and death in Australia [16]. The main data sources reporting on tobacco smoking in Australia are the ABS National Health Survey’s (NHS), the National Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, and the AIHW National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS).

These surveys show that:

  • based on the ABS NHS, in 2014–15, 12.1% of women aged 18 or over and 2.3% of girls aged 15–17 years smoked daily [1]
  • based on the AIHW NDSHS, in 2016, 11% of women aged 18 or over and 3.2% of females aged 14–19 smoked daily [6].
  • The proportion of females who smoke tobacco differs by age and between population groups [1, 2, 3]:  
  • 13.3% of younger women (18–44) smoked daily, compared with 11.0% of older women (aged 45 or over).
  • 18.6% of women living in the lowest socioeconomic areas smoked daily, compared with 6.6% of women living in the highest socioeconomic areas.
  • 16.7% of women living in Outer regional and remote areas smoked daily, compared with 10.1% of women living in Major cities.
  •  38.2% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women smoked daily in 2014–15, compared to 12.2% of non-Indigenous women, after adjusting for differences in age structure.
  • The proportion of mothers smoking at any time during pregnancy has steadily declined over time—from 14.6% in 2009 to 10.6% in 2014.
  • 44.7% of Indigenous mothers smoked in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, compared with 12.1% of non-Indigenous mothers in 2014, after adjusting for differences in age structure.

Alcohol

Excessive alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for a variety of health problems, including liver and heart conditions, and poor mental health. It also contributes to accident and injury, such as motor vehicle accidents, physical violence and homicide. The main data sources reporting on alcohol consumption in Australia are the AIHW National Drug Strategy Household Survey and the ABS National Health Survey. Although these surveys use different methodologies, they show similar results.

Based on the AIHW NDSHS, in 2016 10% of women (ages 18+) were lifetime risky drinkers [6]. About 3 in 10 women aged 18 and over (29%) exceeded the single occasion risky drinking threshold at least once in the last 12 months.

Based on the ABS NHS, in 2014–15, almost a third of women aged 18 and over (32%) were exceeding the single occasion risk threshold, and 9.3% exceeded the lifetime risk guideline. The rates of lifetime and single occasion risky drinking vary by age-group (see Figure 3) [1].  

Figure 3: Lifetime and single occasion risky drinking, women, by age-group, 2014–15

Lifetime risky drinking

This figure is comprised of two vertical bar charts comparing the percentage of lifetime risky drinkers, and the percentage of single occasion risky drinkers, across age groups. The percentage of lifetime risky drinkers is greatest among those aged 45–54 and 65–74, both at 11%25. The lowest percentage of lifetime risky drinkers was among women aged 25–34 at 7%25.

Single occasion risky drinking

The percentage of single occasion risky drinkers in each age group decreases across the lifespan, from 61%25 among those aged 18–24, to 4%25 among those aged 75 and over.

Source: ABS 2015 [12] (Table S3).

The proportion of women who exceed the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines varies by age and between population groups [1, 2, 3]: 

  • 7.5% of younger women (aged 18–24) exceed the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines, compared with 11% of women aged 65–74
  • 12% of women living in the most disadvantaged areas (first quintile) exceed the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines, compared with 7.8% of women living in the least disadvantaged areas (fifth quintile)
  • 10% of women living in Outer regional and remote areas exceed the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines, slightly more than women living in Major cities (9.2%)
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women had the same rates of risky drinking as non-Indigenous women in 2012–13, with around 10% of both groups exceeding the lifetime alcohol risk guidelines, after adjusting for differences in age structure.

Illicit substances

Illicit substance use includes use of illegal drugs (such as cannabis and heroin), or inappropriate use of prescription pharmaceuticals (such as sleeping pills) or other substances (such as naturally occurring hallucinogens). Illicit use of drugs causes death and disability and is a risk factor for many diseases. The effects of illicit drug use can be severe, for example leading to poisoning, heart damage, mental illness, self-harm, suicide and death. Illicit drug use is also associated with risks to users' families and friends and to the community. It contributes to social and family disruptions, violence, and crime and community safety issues. The AIHW National Drug Strategy Household Survey reports on illicit drug use in Australia.

In 2016, 13% of Australian females aged 14 years and over had used an illicit drug in the previous 12 months (‘recent use’) [6].

The pattern of illicit substance use differs by age groups—25% of women aged 20–29 had recently used illicit drugs compared with 5.9% of women aged 60 or over.

Violence

Violence is the intentional threat or actual use of physical force or power against oneself, another person, or a group, that results in injury, death, psychological harm, abnormal growth or deprivation. The main data source for violence is the ABS Personal Safety Survey.

2 in 5

Australian women have experienced violence since they turned 15

In 2012, for women aged 18 or over [9]:

  • 41% had experienced violence since the age of 15 —34% had experienced physical violence and 19% had experienced sexual violence
  • 5.3% had experienced violence in the last 12 months, with the highest rates among women aged 55+ (14%) and the lowest for women aged 18 to 24 (11%)
  • 17% had experienced partner violence since the age of 15
  • 19% had experienced stalking in their lifetime
  • 25% had experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15
  • 48% had experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime.

References

  1. ABS 2015a. National Health Survey: First results 2014–15. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.
  2. ABS 2013a. National Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey 2012–13: First results. Cat. 4727.0.55.001
  3. ABS 2015b. National Health Survey: 2014–15. Microdata (TableBuilder). ABS.
  4. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2017a. Weight loss surgery in Australia 2014–15: Australian hospital statistics. Cat. no. HSE 186. Canberra: AIHW.
  5. AIHW 2012. Risk factors contributing to chronic disease. Cat. no. PHE 157. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
  6.  AIHW 2017b. National Drug Strategy and Household Survey 2016: key findings online data tables. Canberra: AIHW.
  7. AIHW 2017c. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance framework 2017: supplementary online tables. Cat. no. WEB 170. Canberra: AIHW.
  8. AIHW 2016. Australia's mothers and babies 2014—in brief. Perinatal statistics series no. 32. Cat. no. PER 87. Canberra: AIHW.
  9. ABS 2013b. Personal Safety, Australia, 2012. ABS cat. no. 4906.0. Canberra: ABS.
  10. AIHW 2017b. National Drug Strategy and Household Survey 2016: key findings online data tables. Canberra: AIHW.
  11. AIHW 2017c. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health performance framework 2017: supplementary online tables. Cat. no. WEB 170. Canberra: AIHW.
  12. AIHW 2016. Australia's mothers and babies 2014—in brief. Perinatal statistics series no. 32. Cat. no. PER 87. Canberra: AIHW.
  13. ABS 2013b. Personal Safety, Australia, 2012. ABS cat. no. 4906.0. Canberra: ABS.