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FIT FIGURES PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND HEALTH IN AUSTRALIA 2007–08
For Australian adults, the National Physical Activity Guidelines (Endnote 2) recommend four steps to achieve the minimum daily level of physical activity required for a health benefit:
Step 2 - Be active every day in as many ways as you can.
Step 3 - Put together at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days.
Step 4 - If you can, also enjoy some regular, vigorous activity for extra health and fitness.
The results of the ABS National Health Survey, Australia 2007-2008 (cat. no. 4364.0) (NHS) reveal information about the health of Australians and some of the factors which contribute to it. A person's level of physical activity is one of these factors and this article will explore how it relates to a person's overall health and well-being.
All data presented in this article are from the ABS 2007-08 NHS and relates only to persons aged 18 years and over unless otherwise indicated. Proportions have been calculated using the total population aged 18 years and over as the denominator. This total includes those who did not answer or whose response could not be determined.
CHANGES TO PHYSICAL ACTIVITY LEVELS AND BODY MASS INDEX (BMI)
Over time the NHS has collected data about the level of exercise people have undertaken for fitness, recreation or sport in the two weeks prior to interview. This is then grouped into four categories based on frequency, intensity and duration. A high level of exercise includes two or more hours of vigorous exercise during the two week period, while a moderate level includes less than two hours. A very low, or sedentary, level of exercise includes either no exercise or sitting in one place for extended periods of time. For more information about how these exercise levels were derived see the ABS 2007-08 National Health Survey Users' Guide (cat. no. 4363.0.55.001).
Based on the National Physical Activity Guidelines, people with a low or sedentary level of exercise will not be achieving the minimum daily level of physical activity required for a health benefit (Endnote 2).
Since 2001, the proportion of adults who reported a high or moderate level of exercise has decreased from 31% to 28% in 2007-08 and the proportion reporting a low or sedentary has increased from 69% to 72%.
A commonly used indicator of whether a person's weight is within a healthy range is the Body Mass Index (BMI). It is calculated from height and weight measurements using the formula 'weight (kg) divided by the square of height (m)'. There are four categories of BMI; underweight, normal, overweight and obese. Please refer to the 2007-08 NHS Glossary for more information.
The 2007-08 NHS collected self-reported height and weight and measured height and weight, from which BMI was derived. Since 2001, the proportion of adults in the normal BMI category decreased from 47% to 42% in 2007-08 and increased in the obese category from 16% to 21%.
Diabetes Australia has identified that the high number of people in Australia who are overweight or obese is a key contributor to the increasing number of people with type 2 diabetes. Those who are at risk are mainly over the age of 40, overweight or obese and may have a family history of the disease, however, Diabetes Australia advises that up to 60 per cent of cases could be prevented, or delayed by maintaining a healthy weight through diet and regular physical activity (Endnote 3).
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY LEVELS 12 MONTHS AGO
In the 2007-08 NHS, about half (55%) of adults reported that their current level of physical activity was the same as it was 12 months ago. Equal proportions of men (21%) reported that they were either more or less active than 12 months ago. This was also the case for women (24%).
The highest proportions of those who reported that they were less active than 12 months ago were people aged 25-34 years and people aged 65 years and over (both 26%). This was followed by people aged 18-24 years (22%). Of those who were less active, there was a higher proportion of women (24%) compared with men (21%).
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY LEVELS IN 2007-08
Age and sex
Only 6% of adults in the 2007-08 NHS reported that they had undertaken a high level of exercise in the two weeks prior to interview while 22% reported a moderate level. The highest proportions of adults surveyed reported a low or sedentary level of exercise (both 36%). Women were more likely to report a low (39%) level of exercise than men (33%) and men were more likely to report high or moderate levels (8% and 23%) when compared with women (4% and 20%).
A low or sedentary level of exercise in the two weeks prior to interview was reported by 77% of people aged 65 years and over. The lowest proportion of people reporting a low or sedentary level of exercise were aged 18-24 years (66%). Interestingly, the proportion of women who reported a low or sedentary level of exercise in this age group (74%) is much higher than the proportion of men (59%).
State or Territory
The current physical activity guidelines for Australian adults suggest at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most, preferably all, days. The 2007-08 NHS collected data about people's level of exercise and then assessed it against these guidelines.
In the week prior to interview, 62% of Australian adults did not meet the physical activity guidelines. The highest proportions of people not meeting the guidelines were in South Australia (65%) and Queensland (66%). The Australian Capital Territory had the lowest proportion of people who did not meet the physical activity guidelines (55%).
Did not meet physical activity guidelines in last week, By state or territory of usual residence - 2007-08
The proportion of people reporting a low or sedentary level of exercise in the 2007-08 NHS was only slightly higher for people living in the inner and outer regional and remote areas of Australia (both 74%) compared with those living in major cities (71%). The highest proportion of women reporting a low or sedentary level of activity were in inner regional Australia (78%) while the highest proportion of men were in outer regional or remote Australia (73%). The lowest proportion of people reporting a low or sedentary level of exercise were men in major cities (67%).
OTHER HEALTH RISK FACTORS
As well as a low level of physical activity, there are a number of other health risk factors that may have an impact on a person's overall health status and their risk of contracting a long-term health condition. These factors include diet, smoking and alcohol consumption.
Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart, stroke and blood vessel diseases, is one of the leading causes of death in Australia, accounting for 34% of deaths in 2008 (Endnote 4). The Heart Foundation advises that the main risk factors increasing the chances of developing heart disease are physical inactivity, poor nutrition and diet, being overweight or obese and smoking (Endnote 5).
The results of the 2007-08 NHS show that a higher proportion of people who were sedentary in the week prior to interview also smoked daily (25%) than those who reported either a low (17%), moderate (13%) or high level (13%) of exercise. A higher proportion of people who had never smoked daily (60%) also reported a high level of exercise in the last week compared with people who had never smoked daily and reported a sedentary level (50%).
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends that Australian adults eat at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day as eating fruit and vegetables both contributes to good health and assists with maintaining a healthy weight (Endnote 6). The NHS collected data about people's usual daily intake of fruit and vegetables in relation to these guidelines with 94% of the adult population reporting an inadequate intake.
Alcohol consumption risk levels were based on data collected about people's average daily consumption of alcohol over three days in the week prior to interview and categorised according to the alcohol risk levels as defined by the NHMRC (Endnote 7). Interestingly, a higher proportion of people who reported high risk alcohol consumption (8%) also reported a high level of exercise in the week prior to interview compared with only 5% who reported a low level of exercise. This may be related to the younger age profile of those reporting high levels of exercise compared to those reporting low or sedentary levels.
TYPES OF PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Walking for exercise
In the 2007-08 NHS, 48% of people reported that they had walked for exercise in the two weeks prior to interview. The highest proportions of people who had walked (both 51%) were aged 45-54 and 55-64 years. The lowest proportion were aged 18-24 years (42%). There was an overall higher proportion of women (51%) than men (45%) who reported that they had walked for exercise.
The popularity of walking for exercise is to be expected as it is an easy and essentially free way to incorporate physical activity into daily life. In line with the National Guidelines for Physical Activity (Endnote 2), the Australian Better Health Initiative 'Measure Up' website advises that 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity a day may be accumulated in lots of 10 minutes and that walking should be at such a pace so as to noticeably increase breathing and heart rate (Endnote 8).
Exercise for a specific condition
Physical activity is not only valuable as a preventative measure. For people suffering from a long-term health condition certain types of physical activity may also be used to help minimise its effects.
For people with arthritis, research has shown that regular exercise is one of its most effective treatments, helping to increase mobility and flexibility and decreasing pain and fatigue (Endnote 9). In the 2007-08 NHS, 15% of people (aged 0 to 75 years and over) reported that they had arthritis and 3% that they had osteoporosis. Out of a number of possible actions taken in relation to their condition, 19% of people with arthritis or osteoporosis reported that they had exercised most days in the two weeks prior to interview and 9% stated that they had done weights/strength/resistance training. Other actions taken included using medication (34%), taking vitamins or natural treatments (47%) and massage (8%).
Of people who reported medically diagnosed diabetes in the 2007-08 NHS (4% of people aged 0 to 75 years and over), 27% reported that they had exercised most days in the two weeks prior to interview as an action taken in relation to their condition. More men (30%) than women (23%) reported exercising in relation to their condition. Other actions taken include changing eating pattern/diet (75%) and losing weight (17%).
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY AND WELL-BEING
Participants in the 2007-08 NHS were asked to rate their own health on a five point scale from poor to excellent. While this is a purely subjective assessment it is a useful indication of a person's general feeling of well-being. In relation to physical activity, people who reported a high or moderate level of exercise in the two weeks prior to interview were more likely to assess their health as excellent/very good (80% high and 65% moderate). Of people whose exercise levels were low only 57% assessed their health as excellent/very good while only 43% of people who reported a sedentary level of exercise assessed their health as excellent/very good, 33% as good and 23% as having fair/poor health.
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1. World Health Organisation 2010, Australia: Health Situation and Trend. Accessed 13 April, 2010, <http://www.wpro.who.int/countries/2009/aus/health_situation.htm>
2. Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing 2010, Physical Activity: Physical Activity Guidelines. Accessed 25 February, 2010, <http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubhlth-strateg-phys-act-guidelines>
3. Diabetes Australia 2010, Understanding Diabetes: Are You at Risk? Accessed 25 February, 2010, < http://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/en/Understanding-Diabetes/Are-You-at-Risk>
4. ABS, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008 (cat. no. 3303.0)
5. Heart Foundation 2010, Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease. Accessed 25 February, 2010, <http://www.heartfoundation.org.au/Heart_Information/Risk_Factors/Pages/default.aspx>
6. Go for 2 and 5 2010, Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults 2003. Accessed on 2 March 2010, <http://www.gofor2and5.com.au/DataStore/files/pdf/n33.pdf>
7. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 2010, Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol 2009. Accessed on 2 March, 2010, <http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/ds10-alcohol.pdf>
8. Australian Better Health Initiative 'Measure Up' 2010, Tips for Getting Active, Accessed 25 February 2010, <http://www.measureup.gov.au/internet/abhi/publishing.nsf/Content/Getting+active-lp>
9. Arthritis Australia 2010, Arthritis Information Sheet: Physical Activity, 2008. Accessed 1 March, 2010, <http://www.arthritisaustralia.com.au/images/stories/documents/info_sheets/english/colour/Physical%20activity.pdf>
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