Physical inactivity

What is Physical activity?

‘Physical activity’ is any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure (WHO 2017a). Examples of ‘physical activity’ include:

Sporting and leisure activities

  • swimming
  • tennis
  • bushwalking
  • going to the gym

Incidental activities

  • at work
  • for transport
  • household chores.

Muscle strengthening activities

  • some types of yoga or pilates
  • resistance-band training
  • high-intensity activities (for example, cycling, dancing, gymnastics or gardening that requires digging or lifting)
  • climbing stairs or hills
  • squats, push-ups, sit-ups and weight training
  • active playgrounds for children (for example, monkey bars, climbing frames, skipping or hopscotch).

Insufficient physical activity

Low levels of physical activity are a major risk factor for chronic conditions. People who do not do sufficient physical activity have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Being physically active improves mental and musculoskeletal health and reduces other risk factors such as overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol.

In 2015, 2.5% of the total disease burden was due to physical inactivity (AIHW 2019). Physical inactivity contributed 10–20% of the individual disease burden from diabetes, bowel cancer, uterine cancer, dementia, breast cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke (AIHW 2019) (see Burden of disease)

For more information on physical activity see Physical activity.

Box 1: Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines

Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines (the Guidelines) are a set of recommendations outlining the minimum levels of physical activity required for health benefits, as well as the maximum amount of time one should spend on sedentary behaviours to achieve optimal health outcomes (Department of Health 2017).

There are different recommendations for each age group, summarised in the table below. This approach acknowledges that different amounts of physical activity are required at various stages of life for maximum health benefits (Table 1).

Table 1: Summary of Australian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines

 

Ages 2–51

Ages 5–172

Ages 18–64

Ages 65 and over

Physical activity

At least 180 minutes per day with at least 60 minutes of energetic play

Several hours of light activities with at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day

Be active on most, preferably all days with at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week

Be active on most, preferably all days with at least 30 minutes of moderate activity per day

Sedentary or screen-based activity

Should not be restrained for more than 60 minutes at a time3
No more than 60 minutes of sedentary screen time per day

No more than 120 minutes of screen use
Break up long periods of sitting

Minimise and break up prolonged periods of sitting

Be as active as possible

Strength

N/A

Vigorous and muscle strengthening activities 3 times a week

Muscle strengthening activities 2 times a week

Incorporate muscle strengthening activities

Notes

  1. This group includes those aged 5 who are not yet in full-time schooling (for example, pre-schoolers).
  2. This group includes those aged 5 who are in full-time schooling.
  3. Examples include being restrained in a stroller, car seat or high chair.

In 2017–18, the ABS National Health Survey collected information for the first time on physical activity at work. Therefore all results for adults include physical activity at work.

Based on the guidelines, in this report insufficient physical activity was defined as:

  • Children aged 2–5 who did not complete at least 180 minutes of physical activity per day
  • Children and adolescents aged 5–17 who did not complete at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day
  • Adults aged 18–64 who did not complete 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity across 5 or more days in the last week
  • Adults aged 65 and over who did not complete at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day on 5 or more days in the last week.

Children and adolescents

The Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend children and young people (aged 5–17) accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day (Department of Health 2019).

The most recent data available on physical activity in children and adolescents is the ABS 2011–12 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. For the full results of the analysis see Physical activity across the life stages.

Children aged 2–5

In 2011–12, only 17% of children aged 2–5 met both the physical activity and sedentary screen-based behaviour guidelines on all 7 days.

About 6 in 10 (61%) children aged 2–5 met the physical activity guideline, and one-quarter (25%) met the sedentary screen-based behaviour guideline (AIHW 2018).

Children aged 5–11 and 12–17

The majority of children and adolescents are not meeting the physical activity and sedentary behaviour guidelines.

In 2011–12, around:

  • 1 in 10 (12%) children aged 5–12 and only 2% of young people aged 13–17 met both the physical activity and sedentary screen-based behaviour guidelines
  • 1 in 4 (26%) children aged 5–12 and around 1 in 10 (8%) children aged 13–17 met the physical activity guideline
  • 1 in 3 (35%) children aged 5–12 and 1 in 5 (20%) children aged 13–17 met the sedentary screen-based behaviour guideline (AIHW 2018).

Muscle strengthening activities

The Guidelines recommend children and adolescents undertake muscle strengthening activities at least 3 times a week.

While this encompasses all of the muscle strengthening activities mentioned earlier, not all were captured or prompted as responses in the data source for this section, the ABS National Health Survey (ABS 2018). These data are only available for adolescents aged 15 to 17 years.

In 2017–18, 16% of 15 to 17 year olds did muscle strengthening activities on 3 or more days a week (22% of boys and 8% of girls).

Only 2% of 15 to 17 year olds met both the physical activity and muscle strengthening guidelines (ABS 2018).

Adults

Just over 1 in 2 adults (55%) did not participate in sufficient physical activity in 2017–18. Women were more likely than men to be insufficiently active (59% compared to 50%).

The rate of insufficient physical activity generally increases with increasing age (Figure 1). Among 18–24 year olds, 41% of men and 48% of women were insufficiently active. For those aged 65 and over, 69% of men and 75% of women were insufficiently active.

Figure 1: Prevalence of insufficient physical activity among adults, by age and sex, 2017–18

This is a vertical bar chart comparing the prevalence of insufficient physical activity in 2017–18 for men and women across different age groups. There is an increase in physical inactivity with age for men and women. Insufficient physical activity is slightly higher for women than men at all ages. Those aged 18–24 years have the lowest level of insufficient physical activity for both men (41.5%25) and women (48.3%25). The highest rate of insufficient physical activity is among those aged 65 and over for both men (69.0%25) and women (74.5%25).

Source: AIHW analysis of ABS 2019 (see Table S1a for footnotes).

Muscle strengthening activities

The physical activity guidelines also recommend Australian adults aged 18–64 undertake muscle strengthening activities at least 2 times a week, and adults aged 65 and over incorporate muscle strengthening activities.

While this encompasses all of these muscle strengthening activities mentioned earlier, not all were captured or prompted as responses in the data source for this section, the ABS National Health Survey (ABS 2018).

In 2017–18, 23% of adults aged 18 and over did muscle strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week (22% of women and 25% of men) (Table S1a).

Only 15% of adults met both the physical activity and muscle strengthening guidelines—17% of men and 14% of women (Table S1a).

Population groups

There were similar levels of insufficient physical activity among adults living in all remoteness areas:

  • 55% for Outer regional and remote areas
  • 53% for Inner regional areas
  • 54% for Major cities (Figure 2).

In 2017–18, 63% of people from the lowest socioeconomic areas were insufficiently active, compared with 48% in the highest socioeconomic areas (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Prevalence of insufficient physical activity among adults, by selected population characteristics, 2017–18

This is a line graph showing the change of insufficient physical activity in adults from 2007–08 to in 2017–18. The level of insufficient physical activity declined from 69%25 in 2007–08 to 66%25 in 2011–12 then remained about the same in 2014–15 and 2017–18.

Note: Rates are age-standardised to the 2001 Australian population.

Source: AIHW analysis ABS 2019, (see Table S2a for footnotes).

Trends

After adjusting for age, there was a slight decrease in the proportion of adults who were insufficiently active between 2007–08 and 2017–18— decreasing from 69% to 65%. However rates have not changed significantly since 2011–12 (Figure 3). These results do not include activity undertaken at work.

Figure 3: Prevalence of insufficient physical activity among adults from 2007–08 to 2017–18

This is a line graph showing the change of insufficient physical activity in adults from 2007–08 to in 2017–18. The level of insufficient physical activity declined from 69%25 in 2007–08 to 66%25 in 2011–12 then remained about the same in 2014–15 and 2017–18.

Note: Rates are age-standardised to the 2001 Australian population.

Source: AIHW analysis of ABS 2019; ABS 2016; ABS 2014 and ABS 2010 see Table S3 for footnotes).

References

Department of Health 2019. Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines and the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines. Canberra: DoH. Viewed 30 April 2019, <http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/ publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines>.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2010. Information paper: National Health Survey, basic and expanded CURF, 2007–08, expanded confidentialised unit record file, DataLab. ABS cat. no. 4324.0. Canberra: ABS. Findings based on AIHW analysis of ABS microdata.

ABS 2014. Microdata: Australian Health Survey, core content—risk factors and selected health conditions, 2011–12, expanded confidentialised unit record file, DataLab. ABS cat. no. 4324.0.55.003. Canberra: ABS. Findings based on AIHW analysis of ABS microdata.

ABS 2016. Microdata: National Health Survey, 2014–15, expanded confidentialised unit record file, DataLab. ABS cat. no. 4324.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS. Findings based on AIHW analysis of ABS microdata.

ABS 2018. National Health Survey: First Results, 2017–18. ABS cat, no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

ABS 2019. Microdata: National Health Survey 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4324.0.55.001. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.

AIHW 2017. Impact of physical inactivity as a risk factor for chronic conditions: Australian Burden of Disease Study. Australian Burden of Disease Study series no.15. Cat. no. BOD 16. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2018. Physical activity across the life stages. Cat. no. PHE 225. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2015. Australian Burden of Disease series no. 19. Cat. no. BOD 22. Canberra: AIHW.