What can we improve?

How we live can have a big impact on our health. Small lifestyle changes—such as giving up smoking, cutting back risky levels of alcohol consumption, or maintaining a normal weight—can lead to health gains with lifelong effects for individuals and the community.

Individuals (particularly women) and the community are also affected by a behavioural risk factor that pervades all levels of society—family, domestic and sexual violence.

Health behaviours are crucial, but they are not the only factors that influence our health. Social factors, government policies, and access to health services are also important in improving health behaviours and outcomes.

Most of us are overweight

Almost two-thirds (63%) of Australians aged 18 and over, and more than one-quarter (28%) of children aged 5–17 are overweight or obese. Compared with 1995, in 2014–15 a greater proportion of adults was in the obese weight range, and the proportion in the severely obese range was nearly double.

Overweight and obesity are risk factors for a number of chronic conditions. Overweight or obese adults report higher rates of arthritis, back pain and problems, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases than adults in the normal weight range.

Overweight and obesity, when considered together with insufficient physical activity, is estimated to account for 9% of the total disease burden in Australia—the same as tobacco smoking (the leading risk factor).

Overweight and obesity at the population level is measured by calculating body mass index (BMI), which is based on a person's weight and height.

Proportion of adults who are overweight or obese

This figure shows two stacked horizontal bar charts showing the proportion of adults who are overweight and obese, by sex. The top chart (for men) shows a higher proportion of men were in the categories overweight but not obese (42%25) and obese (28%25) compared with the bottom chart (for women) (29%25 and 27%25 respectively). Also, a higher proportion of women were not overweight or obese (44%25) compared with men (29%25).

To calculate your BMI and see how you compare with the rest of Australia, use the online data visualisation tool.

We’re not eating a healthy diet or doing enough exercise

Eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise can reduce the risk of overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and developing chronic conditions.

However, more than 99% of all children and 96% of adults do not eat the recommended amount of vegetables. Additionally, more than two-thirds of children and almost half of adults do not follow the recommendation to limit their consumption of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake.

Australians are not doing the recommended amount of exercise for their age each week. This is most pronounced among adolescents (aged 13–17), where 92% do not get the recommended amount of exercise.

We have high blood pressure

Biomedical risk factors, such as high blood pressure, are also linked to disease risk: just over 1 in 3 (6 million) Australian adults have high blood pressure.

According to self-reported information, overweight and obese adults are more likely to have high blood pressure than people in the normal weight range.

Our environment also plays a part

The term ‘obesogenic environment’ has been used to describe an environment that promotes obesity among individuals and populations. This includes factors such as limited access to green spaces, increasing work hours and sedentary jobs and the amount of time we spend doing screen-based activities (such as watching TV).

Find out more: Chapter 4.8 ‘Insufficient physical activity’, 4.9 ‘Diet’, 4.10 ‘Overweight and obesity’ and 4.11 ‘Biomedical risk factors’ in Australia’s health 2018.

3 in 4 of us have drunk alcohol

Did you know?

To reduce your risk of harm:

  • Over your lifetime, drink no more than 2 standard drinks a day

  • On any occasion, drink no more than 4 standard drinks

Drinking alcohol is associated with many social and cultural activities in Australia—in 2016, more than 3 in 4 (77%) Australians aged 14 and over had consumed alcohol in the past 12 months.

Alcohol can pose a risk to individuals, families and the broader community—it is estimated to be responsible for 4.6% of the total disease burden in Australia, and for more than 5,000 deaths each year. The annual social cost of alcohol abuse is estimated at $14 billion.

Historically, young adults (aged 18–24) have consumed alcohol at higher rates than any other age group, and they remain mostly likely to drink at risky levels on a single occasion.

However, since 2001, the rate of young adults drinking at levels that put them at risk for their lifetime and on a single occasion has fallen, while rates for older age groups have been stable or have increased.

Change in risky alcohol use by age group

This figure presents two side-by-side line charts, one for lifetime risk and single occasion risk, for different age groups. Data are presented for the years 2001 and 2016.  Both graphs show a decline in risky drinking for those aged 18–24 and 25–34 between 2001 and 2016, but little change over time for the remaining age groups.

Find out more: Chapter 4.6 ‘Alcohol risk and harm’ in Australia’s health 2018.

Small lifestyle changes could bring big health gains

Many chronic conditions share common risk factors, such as excess body weight, tobacco smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and insufficient physical activity—all of which can be modified through lifestyle changes.

By reducing our exposure to these modifiable risk factors, Australia could cut its total disease burden by one-third.

Small personal lifestyle changes could have big health gains for the population at risk of disease due to these factors:

  • An extra 15 minutes of brisk walking by each person 5 days a week could cut Australia’s disease burden due to insufficient physical activity by about 14%. If this time rose to 30 minutes, the burden could be reduced by 26%.
  • Disease burden due to overweight and obesity could be cut by 6% if Australians maintained their current weight and by 14% if people who are overweight or obese and of average height lost about 3kg and this was maintained

For more scenario modelling results see the online data visualisation tool.

If everyone was in the normal weight range, disease burden in Australia would be reduced

Infographic showing percentages for 10 different diseases

Some of us are seeking help from a GP to get healthier. In 2014–15, of people aged 15 and over:

  • 14% discussed reaching a normal weight with a GP (for adults who were obese, 31% discussed reaching a normal weight)
  • 11% discussed eating healthy food or improving their diet
  • 10% discussed increasing their exercise levels.

In addition, 10% of adults who drank more than 2 standard drinks per day discussed drinking alcohol in moderation.

Find out more: Chapter 4.4 ‘Contribution of selected risk factors to burden of disease’ and 7.5 ‘Primary health care’ in Australia’s health 2018.

3.1 million Australians used an illicit drug in the last 12 months

More than 4 in 10 (43% or 8.5 million) Australians aged 14 and over have used an illicit drug at some point in their lives.

In 2016, around 3.1 million people (16%) had illicitly used a drug in the last 12 months—4 in 5 had used illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy and meth/amphetamines, and 1 in 5 had misused a pharmaceutical drug. While the proportion of people using illicit drugs is higher than in 2007 (13%), no clear trend is evident since 2001.

In 2016, Australia recorded its highest number (1,800) of drug-induced deaths; however, the death rate was lower than that recorded in 1999.

Drug-induced deaths (per 100,000 population) over time

This line chart shows the trend of drug-induced deaths from 1997 to 2016. Drug-induced deaths peaked in 1999 with 9.2 deaths per 100,000 population. From 1999, deaths decreased and began to slowly increase again with a second peak in 2016 at 7.5 drug-induced deaths per 100,000 population.

There were 57,900 drug-related hospitalisations in 2015–16 (0.5% of all hospitalisations), up from around 38,300 in 2011–12. The rate of amphetamine-related hospitalisations increased by more than two and a half times over the same period.

Illicit drug use is strongly associated with mental illness. More than one-quarter (26%) of recent illicit drug users have been diagnosed or treated for a mental illness in the previous 12 months and over one-fifth (22%) report high or very high levels of psychological distress.

Find out more: Chapter 4.7 ‘Illicit drug use’ in Australia’s health 2018.

How many women and men experience violence by a current or former partner?

For women aged 25–44, family, domestic and sexual violence causes more illness, disability and premature death than any other risk factor. Exposure to intimate partner violence has been linked to depressive and anxiety disorders, early pregnancy loss, homicide and violence, suicide and self-inflicted injuries, alcohol use disorders and children born prematurely or with low birthweight.

  • 1 in 6 women and 1 in 16 men have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner since age 15
  • 8 women per day and 2 men per day are hospitalised after being assaulted by a current or previous partner
  • 1 woman per week and 1 man per month is killed by a current or previous partner

If you are experiencing domestic or family violence or know someone who is, call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit the 1800RESPECT website.

Find out more: Chapter 3.16 ‘Family, domestic and sexual violence’ in Australia’s health 2018.