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Australia’s Health System Saves $320 Million Every Year with Physical Activity

The public health system saved over $320 million a year from Australians participating in sports and exercise, according to a sports economics report released on Sept. 5.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) spokesperson Dr. Heather Swanston said $1.2 billion was spent on injuries from physical activity, and $149 million was spent on osteoarthritis from previous injuries from physical activity; however, sport and physical activity provided a net saving of $321 million to the Australian health system, in 2018-19.

Dr. Swanston said, “Physical activity has physical and psychological benefits for individuals, which can benefit the health system by reducing the need for people to receive treatment for illness and injuries.”

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On the contrary, AIHW estimated physical inactivity accounted for around $2.4 billion in health spending in 2018-19; however, Dr. Swanston said the cost would have been “$1.7 billion higher without the health benefits from current levels of physical activity, including sport, undertaken in Australia.”

AIHW noted more spending could have been avoided through improved injury prevention and sports and physical activity management.

Physical Activity Prevents Disease Spending

The report (pdf) from AIHW titled “Economics of sport and physical activity participation and injury” was released after the Australian Sports Commission commissioned the investigation.

It found some form of physical activity resulted in saving $1.7 billion for the country in disease prevention alone in 2018-19.

Of the $1.7 billion, the benefit was similar for males ($820 million) and females ($832 million), and around $190 million was due to reduced blood pressure and associated diseases.

At the same time, $108 million was due to improved bone mineral density and reduced fracture costs.

Further, physical activity prevented the most spending on falls ($488 million), depression ($392 million), and anxiety ($173 million).

Meanwhile, savings were highest for coronary heart disease ($82 million), atrial fibrillation and flutter ($34 million), and stroke ($21 million) through reductions in blood pressure.

Savings were also highest for coronary heart disease ($7 million), cataract ($6 million), and peripheral vascular disease ($5 million) through improvements in fasting plasma glucose and savings of $37 million for hip fracture alone, through improved bone mineral density.

Australian Sports Commission (ASC) CEO Kieren Perkins said building a love for physical activity early results in significant long-term physical benefits; however, recent data showed sports injury hospitalizations returned to pre-COVID trends.

Injury Hospitalizations Largely in Line With Pre-COVID Trends

In June 2023, AIHW found 66,500 Australians were admitted to hospital for injuries sustained while playing sport in 2020-21, according to a sports injuries report.

That’s an increase of 14,200 compared with the previous year, bringing the total number of injury hospitalizations mainly in line with pre-COVID trends.

The report, titled Sports Injuries in Australia, found cycling accounted for 9,800 sports injury hospitalizations in 2020–21, the highest of any sport, and an increase of 8,000 in 2019–20, or 35 injury hospitalizations per week.

Dr. Swanston said 2020–21 saw the numbers rebound to pre-pandemic trends after a decline in sports injury hospitalizations in 2019–20 due to COVID-19 lockdowns and the cancellation of many sporting activities.

Meanwhile, over half of hospitalizations for sporting injuries in 2020–21 were for fractures—most commonly a fractured arm or shoulder. At the same time, less than 5 percent of all sports injury hospitalizations were due to concussions.

However, beyond physical injuries, the ASC said two in three children do not meet Australia’s physical activity guidelines, and one in four children are overweight or obese, impacting long-term health outcomes.

Keeping Up the Savings: Keeping Children Active

To combat alarming trends in physical activity among children and keep sports participation, ASC launched an online course for all primary school teachers to help deliver fun, inclusive, and engaging PE sessions on Aug. 31.

The PE—Essential Skills for Primary Teachers program aimed to change slowing sports participation, particularly in females, so teenagers could continue to enjoy the benefits of physical activity.

Mr. Perkins said playing sport during childhood was critical for developing a lifelong physical activity habit. Children who grow up playing sports are more likely to remain active as adults.

However, among girls as young as 7, ASC witnessed less enjoyment and less positive attitudes towards physical activity and sport.

“They also feel they need to be more competent and confident in their ability to take part. As girls mature, these attitudes and experiences appear more entrenched,” he said.

Teachers and schools play a critical role in modeling behaviors and creating accessible sporting environments; however, low-income households have fewer access levels for adults and children.

“Currently, participation rates generally continue to rise in line with income. As a country, we can’t afford to have sport only attainable to the wealthy,” Mr. Perkins said. ”

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