Preventing chronic diseases through physical activity

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Adjunct Professor John Kelly, AM

CEO-National, Heart Foundation
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John joined the Heart Foundation in August 2016. Previous to that, he led sector reform for aged care as CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia. He has extensive clinical, management and consulting background in the health sector, including previous careers in law and in cardiac nursing and current academic appointments with the Sydney Nursing School and the University of Technology, Sydney.

Chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, is the leading cause of ill health and death in Australia.

In 2014-15, more than 11 million Australians had at least one chronic disease and one-quarter of the population had two or more.

Conservative estimates say that one third of the $25 billion spent on health care in Australia each year goes towards preventable conditions.

Yet we know that 31 per cent of the burden of chronic disease could have been prevented . At the launch of the report Prevention better than cure: Spending to save Australian lives, the Heart Foundation reinforced the message that a comprehensive national preventive health program is crucial for Australians living well and staying healthy for as long as possible.

Encouraging more Australians to be physically active is at the heart of any preventive strategy. Data from the UK’s Public Health England suggests that if people were sufficiently active, it could cut the rate of many chronic diseases by as much as 40 per cent. If more people met the recommended guidelines for physical activity they could reduce their risk of:

• Dementia by up to 30 per cent

• Cardiovascular disease by up to 35 per cent

• Type 2 Diabetes by up to 40 per cent

• Colon cancer by 30 per cent

• Breast cancer by 20 per cent

Public Health England’s Everybody Active Every Day national physical activity framework was born out of the realisation that, without prevention, the health costs from inactive 40-60-year-olds would send the UK Government broke.

Through a series of concerted campaigns, the UK has doubled its rates of people meeting the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week – from about 35 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women to about 75 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.

Increasing physical activity rates is a great public health investment– and none more so than encouraging walking.

Most people can walk, it does not cost any money to do, it is accessible, is a great way to spend time with friends (new and old) and is a wonderful tonic for one’s mental health.

The winner of the Heart Foundation Walking program’s Golden Shoe Award, Anne Whalan, joined a Heart Foundation Walking group 20 years ago after her husband suffered heart disease. But it also helped her deal with difficult emotions following his death – Anne says the walking group helped keep her from becoming depressed and has kept her well enough to still be living independently at 90.

Heart Foundation Walking is Australia’s only network of free, community-based walking groups catering for different age groups. The Heart Foundation is delighted that we’re going to partner with the Federal Government to boost these programs further over the next two to four years to reach even more participants.

In May, the Government announced that it would allocate $10 million over two years to the Heart Foundation to lead the Prime Minister’s Walk for Life Challenge, which will support more Australians to become regular walkers and encourage people to be more active.

The Federal Government is also on the right track in having ‘preventive health through physical activity’ as one of the four key pillars of its National Sports Plan.

With the growing focus on prevention and physical activity, I feel that we are on the cusp of significant change.

This is great news for the Heart Foundation, which has worked for the past 60 years to encourage all Australians to lead healthier and more active lifestyles for better heart health.

Australia’s Health 2016 shows that chronic disease is our greatest health challenge, and we – as advocates, as governments, as decision-makers – must roll up our sleeves and enhance preventive measures if we are to help more Australians to live longer, happier, healthier and more productive lives.

This article was originally published in The Health Advocate in August 2017.