Inactivity causes massive loss to Aus health system

Physical inactivity costs Australia’s health system $2.4 billion a year, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

But that bill could be much higher, with sports participation and physical exercise preventing about $1.7 billion in further spending to address health issues that active lifestyles avert.

These figures headline the AIHW’s assessment of the economics of physical activity in 2018-19, particularly in terms of immediate health costs, and avoided spending.

While sport and exercise participation were found to impose their own costs – $149 million is spent addressing exercise-related osteoarthritis treatments and $1.2 billion in spending could have been prevented through better injury management and prevention.

Largely, savings were derived from improved individual health: lowered risk of depression, anxiety, falls, high blood pressure, blood glucose and bone density.

Of the $2.4 billion spent addressing the consequences of physical inactivity, $1.7 billion was due to the direct impact of low levels of activity: coronary heart disease, falls, depressive disorders and type 2 diabetes. These conditions account for the majority of money spent addressing diseases directly associated with physical activity.

Spending between genders was similar.

At the same time, physical activity was found to directly prevent about $488 million from being spent on treatment for falls, and a combined $565 million on depression and anxiety. This is consistent with research conducted by the Australian Sports Commission, which last year found improving mental health was a motivator for increased participation in sports or exercise. Recent research from the University of South Australia also found exercise had a medium impact on improving mental health among adult populations.

One of that study’s authors, Professor Carol Maher, acting director of the Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity, wasn’t surprised to see the health costs associated with physical inactivity.

“Physical inactivity has long been established as a risk factor for numerous non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular issues, diabetes and many forms of cancer,” Maher tells Cosmos.

“What really grabs my attention is the gap—$2.4 billion spent on treating diseases from inactivity, and only $1.7 billion saved through physical activity. That’s money left on the table, so to speak, and it shows we have room for improvement.

“We have to make it easier and more appealing for people to get active. It’s not just a ‘nice-to-have’; it’s a public health necessity. We need to get the word out there: physical activity is good for us as individuals, and it is good for society. Everyone wants to live longer – being physically active means that those extra years should be quality years.”

Extending beyond improving population rates of physical activity, Maher sees an opportunity for public education related to injury prevention – targeting the billion dollars lost to managing wear and tear from participation.

“Providing individuals with information on proper exercise techniques and safety protocols can make a significant difference,” Maher says.

“Additionally, it’s important to remember that the risk of injury varies widely depending on the type of physical activity or sport one engages in. For example, lower-impact activities like swimming, cycling, or walking tend to have fewer associated injuries compared to more high-impact or contact sports like rugby or American football.

“Facility safety is another crucial factor. Ensuring that gyms, pools, and sports venues meet stringent safety standards can prevent a wide array of injuries.”

The report finds the financial burden of physical inactivity is more than four times greater than previous estimates – and in 2018-19 was the fourth most expensive risk factor – behind spending to address issues related to excess weight, tobacco use and high blood sugar levels.

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