Research and economic modelling into physical inactivity and COVID-19.

Mental illness and suicide affect more than 2.8 million Australians and is estimated to cost the Australian economy $220 billion every year. The impact of COVID lockdowns on mental health has been particularly troubling, with half of Australians feeling lonelier since lockdowns.

Armed with the learned knowledge that regular physical activity and exercise is essential in one’s physical and mental health and overall wellbeing, AUSactive partnered with independent research house The Leadership Factor and Deakin University to commission one-of-a-kind benchmark research to assess the true state of the nation. The survey and research also looked at solutions to the challenges facing inactive Australians.

AUSactive’s research, compiled from a survey conducted in October 2021 with more than 1,000 Australians, found that:

  • Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, 51% of exercise-based energy expenditure in Australia came from physical activity in fitness centres and via personal trainers. 29% came via sporting activities, and 20% via other types of exercise.
  • 60% of the decline in national exercise levels due to COVID-19 lockdowns is attributable to lack of access to fitness centres and boutique studios
  • One-third (33%) of Australians in COVID lockdown affected areas report that the lockdowns have had a negative impact on their mental health, 12% saying that it has been a ‘very negative’ impact.
  • 30% of Australians identified as having experienced high psychological distress in the past month, with a further 10% experiencing moderate distress.
  • Younger Australians have been hit particularly hard, with 45% of those aged 17-24 experiencing high psychological distress
  • In the month preceding the survey, 26% of Australians have been feeling tired out for no apparent reason most or all of the time. With a further 26% feeling this some of the time. A similar proportion (24%) have been feeling that everything was an effort most or all of the time.

The researchers found the mental illness implications of the pandemic are very troubling and adding to that concern the survey found 37% of Australians are ‘languishing’. Considered a pre-cursor to more serious mental health illnesses in some instances, languishing has been described as ‘the neglected middle child’ of mental health.

The Good News

AUSactive CEO Barrie Elvish said Australians are increasingly aware of the importance of mental health, with the survey showing that 57% of Australians report having a greater focus on their mental wellbeing as a result of COVID- 19 lockdowns.

Mr Elvish said:

“Extensive research shows that regular exercise is associated with a lower likelihood of developing depression or anxiety. Mounting evidence is also linking physical activity with positive mental health and a sense of purpose in life.”

“Positively, the survey found that 54% of Australians report that exercising regularly and staying healthy is a core part of their identity, with just 20% disagreeing.”

“The survey found that 45% of Australians who didn’t do any strength training each week identified as languishing, compared to 27% who met the recommended guidelines of strength training on at least 2 days a week.”

“The survey found that 45% of Australians who didn’t do any strength training each week identified as languishing, compared to 27% who met the recommended guidelines of strength training on at least 2 days a week.”

“Relatedly, 74% of Australians who belong to a fitness centre or studio report that regular exercise helps give them the energy they need to be supportive to their loved ones and family, compared to 40% among those without membership.”

A Road to Recovery

Government incentives to support businesses with economic fightback have been introduced right across Australia in recent months.

While the face value of these vouchers has been positively received by businesses and the community alike, the majority of these have only been for ‘entertainment’, dining out and domestic travel.

Mr Elvish said AUSactive has long been advocating for the introduction of similar vouchers to get people back to exercising and physical activity, not only for the economic survival of the industry, but to kick-start pandemic-induced sedentary behaviour.

He said economic modelling conducted as part of the independent research found:

  • 44% of Australians indicate that financial incentives will help get them back into exercise sooner post-COVID
  • 44% of Australians say that exercising is more important to them now that they are not actively commuting to work as much as they did before COVID-19
  • A ‘fitness voucher’ incentive that encourages Australians to get physically active via fitness centres and personal trainers will provide health and economic benefits to the value of A$2.9B
  • The ROI to the health system from a fitness voucher is $3.11 per person for each $1 spent, should eligible Australians aged 20-79 be offered a $100 voucher.
Mr Elvish said.

“There is a strong need for a national public education physical activity campaign to improve awareness of the risks of physical inactivity and the benefits of getting active.”

“Research around the world demonstrates that more physically active nations are more prosperous. It’s time for Australia to lift its game to stimulate population health and economic recovery.

“It’s time to start activating the nation.”

To view and download a copy of the full AUSactive’s ‘A More Active Australia For a Healthier Nation’ Research

Report click here.