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Physical Activity

The benefits of regular physical activity are numerous and supported by a broad body of research and evidence. Physical activity (PA) is defined as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure.

It can be undertaken in many different ways: walking, cycling, sports and active forms of recreation (e.g. dance, yoga, tai chi). PA can also be undertaken at work and around the home. All forms can provide health benefits if undertaken regularly and of sufficient duration and intensity.

Physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for premature mortality and reduced quality of life—both physical and mental. High levels of sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity at a population level place a significant burden on a nation’s health budget and its economy.

Sport in its many forms can serve as an excellent platform for families, communities and governments to encourage more people to get more active more often, and to increase their levels of PA.

Benefits of physical activity


PA reduces the risk of developing a range of non-communicable diseases and illness including:

  • coronary artery disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses
  • dementia/cognitive decline in older adults
  • some cancers
  • improve resilience to some communicable diseases
Individual and social

  • improved physical fitness
    (flexibility, body composition, cardio-respiratory health, strength, endurance, and movement skills)
  • enhanced cognitive development
    (mental concentration and sleep/wake cycles)
  • enhanced psychological and social development
    (interpersonal skills, personal resilience, confidence and self-esteem)
  • improved productivity
  • lower health care costs and improved economic performance

Sport—particularly team-based sport—can provide stronger outcomes including:

  • improved resilience
  • improved mental health outcomes across the life course
  • positive role models; social connectedness
  • higher likelihood of meeting PA guidelines and continuing PA long term

Learn more about the benefits of physical activity.

Life stages

No matter what your age, being physically active and limiting your sedentary behaviour every day is essential for health and wellbeing.

Physical activity recommendations for children under 1 year of age.

Physical activity recommendations for children aged 1-2 years of age.

Physical activity recommendations and behaviours for children aged 3-5 years.

Children and youth
Physical activity recommendations and behaviours for children and youth aged 5-17 years.

Physical activity recommendations and behaviours for adults aged 18-64 years.

Older (65+)
Physical activity recommendations and behaviours for adults aged 65 years and over.

Physical activity guidelines, policies and strategies

Current state

Insufficient physical activity, when considered together with overweight and obesity prevalence, account for an estimated 9% of the total disease burden in Australia—the same as tobacco smoking (the leading individual risk factor). 67% of Australians aged 18+ and 25% of children aged 2-17 are overweight or obese.

If all Australians met the current PA guidelines, particularly the moderate-to-vigourous physical activity (MVPA) guidelines, the burden of physical inactivity related disease could be reduced by 26%. This would save the Australian economy an estimated AU$193.2m annually in direct (healthcare expenditure) and indirect (loss of tax revenue, private sector/health insurance, and household out-of-pocket expenses) costs.

How can we get more Australians moving, more often?

To improve physical activity levels programs, strategies and policies are needed across multiple settings and levels of focus. Physical activity should be integrated into the settings where people live, work and play.

  • Environments and facilities need to be safe, accessible, attractive and conducive to active living.
  • Active transport participation and access, e.g. walking and cycling, can enable physical activity on a daily basis.
  • Sport and active recreation can help promote physical activity for people of all ages and abilities.
  • Healthcare, education and workplace settings are ideal sites for physical activity promotion, as they reach a large proportion of the population.

Good and promising practice

Case studies, programs, reports and research in key areas to help get more Australians moving more often.

Sport, recreation and community
Small changes add up - just 15 mins more of brisk walking by each person 5 days a week could cut Australia’s disease burden due to insufficient physical activity by 14%. If this time rose to 30 minutes, the burden could be reduced by 26%.

Support daily PA opportunities including free play, PE and active transport, e.g. active classrooms, active travel drop-off points, the Daily Mile. Children who achieve 45mins a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) perform better in writing, numeracy, and overall proficiency.

Active places and spaces
Infrastructure and public spaces can play a key role in increasing PA. Accessible green spaces and actively promoting and facilitating safe active transport can have a significant impact on communities.

Encourage employees to be more active, less sedentary. Promote and facilitate: short activity breaks; walking meetings; shower and change facilities for active transport and lunch time activities; workplace challenges.

Exercise is medicine. Ensure assessment and advice about PA are routine. Where appropriate prescribe PA to reduce health risk factors; combat effects of disease; and improve general health and wellbeing.

Related Topics

Evaluated by: Melinda Craike, Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health, Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University (April 2021)
Reviewed by: Australasian Sport Information Network
Last updated: 16 April 2021
Content disclaimer: See Clearinghouse for Sport disclaimer


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