Report says Australia needs a new, gold medal approach to measure our nation’s physical activity performance

Jeremy Lasek –  PHAA



As Australia’s Olympic team continues to make us proud, smashing records and inspiring a nation, millions of us have been stuck in lock down, where our best chance of imitating our heroes in green and gold has been restricted to our one hour of daily exercise close to home.  Too many of us have relied on the breath-taking performances of our swimmers and other athletes to get our heart racing and our adrenaline pumping.

The benefits of exercise for our physical and mental health (especially in lockdown and during a health crisis) are well documented.

It’s estimated around 30 percent of the world’s population is physically inactive and in Australia it’s recommended we get a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity every day, or two and a half to three hours a week.

The Australian Government signalled its intentions to make Australia ‘the world’s most active and healthy nation’ with the release of the Sport 2030- – National Sports Plan.

While the importance of regular exercise is a given, in Australia, for decades, accurately and consistently measuring population levels of physical activity has proved problematic.

A report published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH) highlights the challenge. Since the 1980s, measuring our nation’s physical activity has been hampered by inconsistencies and diverse survey criteria. ‘If physical activity trends are to be reliably interpreted and to be useful in informing policy and practice, standardisation is required across Australia,’ the report says.

The authors claim that lack of a standard surveillance system makes it difficult to establish trends that characterise the magnitude of the problem of inactivity, and identify which groups in our population are at particular risk.

‘There have been several calls for a uniform method of monitoring physical activity, as even small changes to survey questions or methods can result in substantial changes to physical activity estimates,’ the ANZJPH report says.

In contrast, internationally, standardised approaches to physical activity measurement, such as that used for adolescents and children in more than 40 European countries, has produced comparable trend data.

The inconsistencies of data collection across Australia are stark. For example, only in Victoria and Tasmania is walking ‘during or as part of work’ included as part of their assessment of walking. In a 2016 survey, Tasmania alone, included ‘vigorous gardening’ towards the calculation of total physical activity.

To identify recent practice in physical activity surveillance for adults, the Australian Systems Approaches to Physical Activity (ASAPa) project  convened two national workshops in 2018. Policymakers and stakeholders from national, state and territory agencies provided information about their jurisdiction’s physical activity policies, programs and prevalence monitoring. A detailed audit of state and territory health sector surveys was then conducted with a focus on estimates of ‘sufficient physical activity for health’.

Apart from the variability between jurisdictions, the absolute differences are substantial, with prevalence estimates from the state and territory surveys varying from below 59% meeting guidelines to well above 65%. This variation and absolute differences between jurisdictions are markedly greater for physical activity than for the relatively consistent trends and inter-jurisdictional differences in obesity and smoking derived from the same population health surveys over the same period.

The ANZJPH report says the many differences in data collection and monitoring ‘masks any efforts to understand the relationship between programs delivered and population effects, reducing the usefulness of current surveillance.

‘To redress this confused situation, Australia requires a coordinated approach across jurisdictions; specifically, consistent measurement and reporting in the period leading up to and beyond 2030, the year for which the World Health Organization target for physical activity has been set.’

The report also suggests ‘improved physical activity coordination and leadership, and a clear physical activity strategic plan, such as that hoped for in the 2018 Sport Australia policy.’

The ANZJPH report, Physical activity surveillance in Australia: standardisation is overdue was jointly authored by Adrian Bauman, Tracy Nau, Sophie Cassidy, Stephen Gilbert, William Bellew, and Ben Smith


Photo Credit –  RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels

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