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Does fitness come at too great a cost?

Seniors should be encouraged by a report that weighs up the benefits of physical activity against the cost of injuries.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 6 mins

Without doubt, injuries are part and parcel of participating in most sports.

Just ask anyone who is getting that little bit older. The bones and muscles aren’t as flexible, and it takes longer – and can cost more – to recover.

But is that a reason why older people should not take up sport or give it up?

A study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that while there are costs to the health system from treating sport and other exercise-related injuries, this is outweighed by savings from boosted health benefits such as lower blood pressure, stronger bones, and improved mental health.

Australians saved the health system more than $320 million in a single year by participating in sport and other forms of physical activity, according to a report, Economics of sport and physical activity participation and injury.

What's more, it is estimated physical inactivity comes at a great cost – accounting for around $2.4 billion in health spending in 2018-19.

The AIHW report is part of a broader project funded by the Australian Sports Commission to progressively develop and test new methodology for gathering evidence about the costs of sports injuries and potential benefits to Australians from increased physical activity and improved injury prevention and management.

The Institute concluded that physical activity has physical and psychological benefits for individuals which can in turn benefit the health system by reducing the need for people to receive treatment for illness and injuries.

AIHW spokesperson Dr Heather Swanston said the cost to the health system would have been $1.7 billion higher without the health benefits from current levels of physical activity, including sport.

“Around $1.2 billion was spent on injuries incurred while undertaking physical activity and $149 million was spent on osteoarthritis due to previous injury from physical activity,” she said.

Overall, sport and physical activity provided a net saving of $321 million to the Australian health system.

More spending could have been avoided through improved injury prevention and management in sport and other forms of physical activity.

Of the $1.7 billion in health spending prevented by physical activity during 2018-19, the benefit was similar for males ($820 million) and females ($832 million).

Around $190 million in benefit was due to reduced blood pressure and associated cardiovascular diseases, while $108 million was due to improved bone mineral density and reduced fracture costs.

From directly associated conditions, physical activity prevented the most spending on:

  • Falls ($488 million).

  • Depression ($392 million).

  • Anxiety ($173 million).

Benefits of exercise

Seniors should continue to be physically active, whether it is through sport or other activities. Here are some of the many benefits of regular exercise for older people: 

  • The amount and size of muscle fibres decrease with age. Some studies suggest that the average body loses around 3kg of lean muscle every decade from middle age. There is evidence to suggest that these changes are related to a sedentary lifestyle, rather than age. Muscle mass can increase if an older person exercises regularly for a relatively short period of time.

  • Bone density begins to decline after the age of 40, but this loss accelerates around 50. As a result, older people are more prone to bone fractures. Weight-bearing exercise may help to reduce the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis.

  • Moderate intensity exercise is most favourable for the heart and lungs. Studies show that cardiorespiratory fitness takes longer to achieve in an older person than a young person, but the physical benefits are similar.

  • The joints of the body require regular movement to remain supple and healthy. People with arthritis can benefit from aerobic and strengthening exercise programs.

  • Carrying too much body fat has been associated with a range of diseases including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Regular exercise burns kilojoules, increases muscle mass, and speeds up metabolism.

Tips for getting active

  • If you are over 40, obese, have a chronic illness, or have been sedentary for some time, see your doctor before you start an exercise routine.

  • Choose activities you find interesting. You are more likely to keep up with an exercise routine if it’s fun rather than a chore.

  • Exercise with friends. Make physical activity an enjoyable social occasion.

  • Safe, easy, and comfortable forms of exercise include walkingswimming and cycling.

  • Weight training can increase your muscle mass. Programs as short as 6 to 8 weeks can be beneficial.

  • Start off slowly and aim for small improvements. Keep track of your progress in a training diary for added motivation.

  • Check your pulse frequently to make sure you aren’t overdoing it.

  • Choose appropriate clothing and safety gear.

  • Don’t let yourself dehydrate. Drink plenty of water.

  • Watch this video about staying active in summer.

Further reading: AIHW, Better Health Victoria

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