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More Australians are turning to exercise to support mental health, but more are turning away from it altogether


A record number of Australians may be pushing exercise down their list of life priorities, but far more appear to be seeing the wider benefits, according to AusPlay’s annual national exercise habits survey of 20,000 people.

Almost one in three Australian adults are now motivated to exercise to support their mental health.

At 31 percent, that number has nearly doubled in five years, enjoying steady growth during the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions.

However, while the survey also found that children are returning to weekly exercise outside of school, with 47 per cent up from 42 per cent the previous year, it also found that being active is no longer as important to some Australians.

The proportion of Australians who were inactive – and who reported that exercise was no longer a priority – increased significantly, from 7 per cent in 2020-21 to 11 per cent in 2021-22.

This is now the highest level recorded since AusPlay began collecting the data in October 2015.

The proportion is even higher for Australians aged 18 and over who speak a language other than English at home, at 13 per cent.

Federal Sport Minister Annika Wells said the survey was useful in understanding how the government and individual sports approach the management of the sector.

“Australians are seeing the benefits of being active for their physical and mental health and we need to continue to remove the barriers that prevent them from being active,” Ms Wells said.

Sports Minister Annika Wells said AusPlay was helping the government understand the barriers to taking up sport.(ABC News: Michael Lloyd)

University of Victoria sports professor Rachel Aimé said Australians’ participation in sport benefits both individuals and society as a whole.

“If you have very poor health and many chronic diseases [are] severe obesity, it is very difficult to be active, especially through sports,” said Professor Aimé.

“That’s the problem. We have rising rates of obesity and chronic disease, which is taking a toll on health and the burden is huge.”

Individual lessons on the climb

The most popular activities for boys are swimming, football (including football and Australian rules) and swimming, dancing and gymnastics for girls.

Among men, walking continues to be popular, ranking third behind walking and going to the gym or fitness.

Yoga was the third most popular non-sports activity among women after walking and fitness.

Sports Commission chief executive Kieran Perkins said the results highlighted a trend towards flexible, individual classes.

“We’re seeing more Australians taking up activities like bushwalking, yoga, pilates and exercise that can be enjoyed at a time and place that suits them,” he said.

“We know many people juggle multiple commitments and it’s important that our sport continues to explore how best to engage with Australians who are looking for flexibility to fit their lifestyles.”

A woman holds a netball with young people in the background.
Rochelle Aimé said that people who exercise alone are more likely to be motivated by mental health reasons.(Submitted by Rochelle Aime)

Professor Aimé said the reasons why people engage in different types of exercise can vary.

“People don’t walk [to] play tennis on saturday afternoon for mental health [reasons]. It can help contribute to a range of things, but usually it’s about going and having fun and hanging out with some mates.

“The downside of COVID is that we all turned to individual activities because we couldn’t do team and club sports, but you actually get better psychological and health benefits because of that social and team nature, and if you’re active with others, you’re more likely to stay active.”

According to the survey, 43 per cent of inactive older Australians — aged 55 and over — say ill health or injury is a barrier to being active.

The survey also highlighted the urban/regional divide, with 83 per cent of Australians aged 15 and over in major cities participating in sport or physical activity at least once a week, compared to just 76 per cent in regional and rural areas.


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