Sport Participation and Play: How to Get More Australians Moving

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Participation and Play Policy Evidence Brief

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Physical activity is good for health, and participation in sport is known to be one of the best ways to be physically active.  Participation in sport – and particularly in organised club-based team sport – is known to contribute to positive physical and psychosocial health above and beyond individual-based physical activities.  Participation in sport in school and early adult years is also an important contributor to continuing engagement in recreational physical activity in later years.

This policy paper is intended to contribute to the development of policy support for participation in sport at all ages and in all communities in Australia. 

Physical inactivity in modern populations and communities is now recognised as a major contributor to the high rates of preventable chronic diseases across the world and Australia is no exception.  One in two Australians has a chronic disease; increasing proportions and numbers of people have two to four chronic conditions and it is estimated that one-third of the burden of these diseases is preventable.  Adults and young people in Australia have low to very low rates of physical activity and lower rates of participation in sport. More Australians now watch sport than participate in sport. Compared with previous generations, Australia’s population now has much lower rates of physical activity and, in parallel, rising rates of obesity, preventable chronic diseases and mental health concerns. Encouraging population wide participation in community sport is recognised as one of the most direct and effective measures to lift physical activity rates at all ages. 

This paper responds to, and proposes policy objectives and strategies to support effective implementation of, the aims of Sport 2030, Australia’s first national sports plan, which was released in mid-2018 and is described as “a comprehensive plan to reshape the face of Australian sport and build a healthier, more physically active nation” [1]. Sport 2030 recognises that participation in ‘sport for all’ is a significant challenge that is important to the health of the nation as well as to pathways to elite sport. 

Sport policy in Australia

The first federal government sport portfolio was established in 1972 and, through the next 45 years, the focus of national sport policy has generally been on investment in and support for elite sport and athletes. In the mid 1990s, national sport policy began to take on an additional focus of improving population health outcomes.

State and territory governments support both elite and community sport. The Sport and Recreation Ministers’ Council (more recently referred to as the Meeting of Sport and Recreation Ministers) established the first National Sport and Active Recreation Policy Framework in 2010 [2].  This framework has guided the development of sport policy across Australia and has included as a priority increasing community (sport) participation. Each state and territory government has also developed strategic policies reflecting the key principles of the National Sport and Active Recreation Policy.

Sport 2030 recognises that participation in ‘sport for all’ is a significant challenge that is important to the health of the nation as well as to elite sport [1].

Sport 2030 provides a new framework for sport policy in Australia and aims to “encourage more Australians to be involved in sport and physical activity, from childhood through to senior years, so they receive the health and social benefits participation delivers” [1].

Sport 2030 has identified current and future barriers to sport participation. These include:

  • people opting for sport and physical activities that are flexible and less organised;
  • the use of digital technology (among young and older groups);
  • the rise in sedentary or low-activity lifestyles;
  • screen time;
  • lack of sporting facilities and inefficient use of existing facilities; and
  • supporting sporting clubs to stay relevant.

Redressing these barriers to encourage sport participation throughout the community will require both investment and action from all levels of governments, the sport industry and the establishment and strengthening of new and existing partnerships to achieve the vision proposed in Sport 2030.

This policy paper has been prepared by an expert working group of sport, physical activity and health experts, working through the Australian Health Policy Collaboration, a national network of health and public policy experts supported by the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University, Melbourne. 

The paper has collated evidence of effective participation policies and implementation strategies both within Australia and internationally that support improved population health outcomes and proposes a suite of evidence-informed policy measures that would directly contribute to the aims of Sport 2030. This paper also considers how sport and health policy can and should complement each other in stimulating and facilitating increased participation in sport and increased levels of physical activity for better health across all ages.