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Australia’s obesity ranking remains high, quarantine worsens habits

6 min read
29 Jul 2020

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) report shows we’re still tipping the scales – and it ‘warrants attention’.

Australia’s health 2020, released 23 July, reveals Australia’s obesity rate remains high. In fact, we’re ranking fifth out of 23 OECD countries – that is, countries part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.[1]

AIHW Deputy CEO, Mr Matthew James, talks further to this point.

‘In 2017-2018, around two-thirds (67%) of adults and one-quarter (25%) of children and adolescents were overweight or obese,’ Mr James explains.[2]

Obesity rate by age in Australia 2017-2018Aus overweight & obesity rates over a decade

Sources: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘National report card examines COVID-19 and other health issues in Australia’. Press release, 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020 | Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘Australia’s health 2020 data insights’. Released 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

The AIHW defines obesity as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over. ‘Overweight’ is a BMI of 25 or more.

2020 quarantine lifestyle changes could increase health risks

Big shifts in our habits due to COVID-19 may also impact our health, the report cautions.[3] Such behavioural changes include reduced physical activity and an increase in alcohol consumption.

AIHW points to early findings from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) that shows some of us are engaging in activities that may impact our health.

From April to early May 2020, the ABS revealed:

  • 22% of adults increased their consumption of unhealthy snack foods
  • 20% reduced physical activity
  • 58% reported more time spent in front of their television, computer, phone or similar devices.

Despite this, 25% did increase their activity.[4]

Good intentions during quarantine

Considering those ABS findings, Google Trends does show we had good intentions for our health earlier in the year. Australia’s search interest for ‘workouts at home’ peaked in March 2020. Tasmania appeared the most interested in this search term, while Western Australia was the least.

Google Trends Australia workouts at home volume

Source: Google Trends

However, COVID-19’s impacts on Australians’ habits are yet to be fully realised.

The link between obesity and coronary heart disease

The AIHW also revealed that coronary heart disease remains Australia’s leading single cause of mortality – despite its death rate dropping 82% since 1980.[5]

Also referred to as ischaemic heart disease, this condition is marked by blockages in the heart’s arteries.

Mr James said almost half (or more than 11 million people) have a chronic condition, like heart disease, diabetes or a mental health condition.

According to Mr James, addressing ‘insufficient physical activity, poor diet and nutrition and overweight and obesity’ could help prevent these conditions.[6]

The AIHW said obesity could also be a contributing factor of other potentially life-threatening conditions, some including:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease
  • sleep apnoea.[7]

Several obesity-related conditions caused some of the most common overnight hospital stays in 2018-19. According to the AIHW’s Admitted Patient Care 2018-19, the following conditions caused some of the top 20 most common separations:*

ConditionPublic hospitalPrivate hospital
Sleep disorders23,53647,631
Heart failure145,514214,293
Chronic ischaemic heart disease13,955

 

22,314

 

*An overnight separation is where the patient was admitted and discharged on different dates.

Please note: The AIHW didn’t specify in Admitted Patient Care 2018-19 whether obesity played a role in these hospitalisations.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘Admitted patient care 2018-19: Australian hospital statistics | Chapter 4: Why did people receive care?’. Accessed 23 July 2020.

Obesity action plan: What’s being done to help Aussies?

Australian Government’s National Obesity Strategy

According to Health.gov.au, the government is working with states and territories to develop a National Obesity Strategy.[8] In late 2020, the results for feedback on this strategy should be compiled and released.[9]

In a statement, The Obesity Collective – a platform dedicated to bringing together individuals and organisations to tackle obesity – provided feedback on the government’s National Obesity Strategy consultation paper.

Specifically, they applauded the paper’s message that there is a need for ‘collective and sustained action’ on Australia’s battle with obesity.[10] However, the Collective did offer some suggestions for improvement.

They particularly challenged the strategy’s definition of healthy weight; overall, the Collective warned against boiling obesity down to BMI scores only.

According to the Collective, what’s considered a healthy weight varies across age groups, ethnicities and the distribution of excess fat within the body.

‘BMI, weight distribution, and cardiometabolic measures combined are good indicators of health impacts from overweight and obesity,’ the statement explained.

Private healthcare subsidising health and lifestyle programs

Some insurers are also supporting Aussies by subsidising the cost of health and lifestyle programs through extras health insurance policies. These extras policies cover out-of-hospital treatment, like trips to the dentist, optometrist and physiotherapist.

Depending on the insurer and the level of cover, you may be able to claim on (to an annual limit):

  • gym memberships
  • exercise class memberships
  • health assessments
  • weight management programs
  • nutritionists
  • exercise physiologists.

Keep in mind that these extras policies can feature conditions. For example, you may need to provide a doctor’s referral to claim back on a certain exercise class. Or, the insurer may require a receipt from your gym to rebate your gym classes.

These conditions and claiming limits are outlined on every policy’s Product Disclosure Statement (PDS).

Learn more about extra policies and how they could help cover lifestyle programs.

Sources:

[1]Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘Australia’s health 2020 data insights’. Released 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[2]Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘National report card examines COVID-19 and other health issues in Australia’. Press release, 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[3] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘Australia’s health 2020 data insights’. Released 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics. ‘4940.0 – Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 29 Apr – 4 May 2020’. Released 18 May 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[5] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘Australia’s health 2020: in brief’. Released 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020 | Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘National report card examines COVID-19 and other health issues in Australia’. Press release, 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[6] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘National report card examines COVID-19 and other health issues in Australia’. Press release, 23 July 2020. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[7] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ‘Overweight and obesity: an interactive insight’. Updated 19 July 2019. Accessed 23 July 2020.

[8] Australian Government Department of Health. ‘Obesity and overweight’. Accessed 24 July 2020.

[9] Australian Government Department of Health. ‘National Obesity Strategy’. Accessed 24 July 2020.

[10] The Obesity Collective. ‘Collective Response to the National Obesity Strategy Consultation – 13 Dec 2019’. Accessed 24 July 2020.

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Written by Renee Olsson

Switch coffee for hot chocolate and winter for summer, and that’s Renee. When she’s not glued to the cinema screen, she’s arguing with her fictional characters (it’s a love-hate relationship). Renee studied Creative and Professional Writing and Journalism at QUT and is passionate about inciting positive change through the written word.

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