Rural life not as active as you think: new study

28 May 2020
Rural Australians need support to 'get moving', according to researchers from the University of Sydney who have published a review finding those in rural areas are just as physically inactive as their city counterparts.

The systematic review and meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Global Health, combined data from 28 Australian studies and over 500,000 participants. It shows only 52 percent of rural populations and 54 percent of Australia’s urban populations meet physical activity guidelines set by the World Health Organization.

A collaboration between researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre, School of Health Sciences, School of Rural Health and the Kolling Institute, it is the first study to use this methodology to provide robust, big-picture, quantitative data on physical activity, inactivity and sedentary behaviour in rural populations in Australia.

There is huge inequality in terms of the provision of adequate infrastructure to address physical inactivity and promote active lifestyles in rural and remote Australia
Prof Ferreira

Senior author Professor Paulo Ferreira said the review debunks the myth of the ‘healthy country lifestyle’ and has important implications for public health policy.

“There is huge inequality in terms of the provision of adequate infrastructure to address physical inactivity and promote active lifestyles in rural and remote Australia,” said Professor Ferreira, from the Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney School of Health Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

“Whenever people talk about policies like implementing green space or places for regular exercise it’s all for big major cities, and we suspect that many of these policies won’t necessarily translate for rural and remote areas.

“For example, the concept of ‘active commuting’ to and from work may not work well for those in rural areas who travel significant distances, or for farm owners where their  workplace is also where they live.”

Professor Ferreira said he worried that inactivity in rural Australia could be contributing to higher levels of chronic disease and more disabling musculoskeletal pain, exacerbated by longer waits to access health care.

“We know this is a direct impact of being physically inactive. People will develop more severe and more chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic pain.”

About the study

Key findings:

  • Physical inactivity was 2 percentage points higher in rural populations (37 percent) compared to urban populations (35 percent).
  • People living in more remote areas had similar levels of physical inactivity compared with people in less remote areas.
  • 52 percent of rural populations and 54 percent of the urban population met physical activity guidelines.
  • Rural populations reported on average 7.8 hours of sedentary time per day.

The review and metanalysis are predominantly based on population studies using self-reported questionnaire data. Time spent on physical activity was not segmented by activity types, for example, those associated with occupational activity, commuting or leisure time.

Lead author and PhD student Carlos Ivan Mesa Castrillon said the results are in line with an earlier report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare that showed 60 percent of people living in rural and 50 percent of people living in urban areas do not meet physical activity recommendations and were deemed insufficiently active.

The World Health Organization currently recommends adults accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week to reap the health benefits of physical activity.

“Public health campaigns promoting physical activity in rural settings are just as necessary as in urban settings,” said Mr Castrillion from the Charles Perkins Centre.

 “Focusing on the risk factors that might affect physical activity and are highly prevalent in the rural population, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, may also help lead to positive lifestyle changes.”

The team said further research, particularly using automated devices such as accelerometers that measure movement, could provide more robust data on physical activity and help shape better health policy for rural and remote Australians.

Declaration: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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