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Physical Activity

Prepared by: Christine May, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport
Evaluated by: Melinda Craike, Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health, Institute for Health and Sport, Victoria University (March 2020)
Last updated: 12 November 2020
Content disclaimer: See Clearinghouse for Sport disclaimer

The benefits of regular physical activity (PA) 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.  Physical activity can be undertaken in many different ways: walking, cycling, sports and active forms of recreation (for example, dance, yoga, tai chi). Physical activity can also be undertaken at work and around the home. All forms of physical activity 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 can 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 physical activity—whether that be for an individual or a nation.

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 developmen
    (interpersonal skills, personal resilience, confidence and self-esteem)
  • improved productivity
  • lower health care costs

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

Physical activity recommendations and behaviours for each age group.

Physical activity guidelines, policies and strategies

How can we get more Australians moving, more often?

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 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 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.

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. Active transport, walking and cycling, enable physical activity participation on a daily basis; sport and active recreation can help promote physical activity for people of all ages and abilities; environments need to be safe, attractive and conductive to active living; and healthcare, education and workplace settings are ideal sites for physical activity promotion, as they reach a large proportion of the population.

Frequently identified barriers to participation include: time, cost, transport, and access to facilities and equipment. For older Australians (65+) poor health or injury are cited as barriers by almost half of the population (48%).

For more information about factors influencing sport and physical activity participation, e.g. cost, competence (physical literacy), cultural, geographical, socio-economic, organisational capacity, and more, see the Clearinghouse Sport Participation in Australia topic.

Sport, recreation and community based interventions
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 about 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. For example: 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 and less sedentary. Consider promoting and facilitating 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; prescribe PA where appropriate to reduce health risk factors, combat effects of disease and improve general health and wellbeing.

Is this information complete?

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