Australian women miss guidelines around healthy eating and exercise

Sep 26 2012

Women in Australia are exercising less and most are not eating nearly enough vegetables, researchers have found.

Drawing data from one of the biggest studies ever conducted with Australian women – the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) – researchers from the University of Queensland and the University of Newcastle have compared women’s lifestyles with national guidelines for good health behaviours and screening.

The report, Adherence to health guidelines: Findings from the ALSWH, was launched today by the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Health, at the new HMRI Building in Newcastle.

The study reports that fewer women than ever are meeting guidelines around healthy weight, with almost half of all the women surveyed considered overweight or obese. Women aged between 34 and 39 years have gained the most weight since the survey was last conducted, with 45 per cent of the group now overweight or obese, up from 40 per cent in 2009.

This group also saw a decline in the percentage of women engaging in the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity a day, with only 44 per cent managing to complete half an hour of exercise on most days each week.

University of Queensland Professor Wendy Brown, one of the report’s lead authors, said the findings reflected how changes in women’s lives impacted their physical activity.

“Most women are also failing to meet dietary guidelines, particularly around consuming five servings of vegetables a day,” she said.

“Less than one per cent of women aged 35-39, only two per cent of women aged 61-66 years and eight per cent of women aged 86-91 years are eating the recommended amount.”

Just as worryingly, researchers found that nutritionally poor, energy dense ‘extras’ made up an increasingly large part of most women’s diets, with most eating more than the recommended four servings per day. ALSWH Co-Director, University of Newcastle Professor Julie Byles, said the study revealed that messages around quitting smoking were getting through.

Smoking rates are down, although women living in rural areas or with a lower educational status are still more likely to continue to smoke,” Professor Byles said.

Women are also heeding advice regarding alcohol consumption and health screenings including blood pressure and cholesterol checks. The study also shows that, contrary to current guidelines, most women consume alcohol during pregnancy, indicating a need for pregnant women to pay particular attention to a healthy lifestyle.

More information:

This report uses data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) to assess women’s adherence to national guidelines for good health behaviours and screening. The ALSWH is a longitudinal population-based survey funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. The project began with more than 40,000 women randomly selected from the Medicare database in 1996. It involves three large, nationally representative, cohorts of Australian women representing three generations: the 1973-1978 cohort, aged 18 to 23 years when first recruited in 1996 and now aged 34 to 39 years in 2012 the 1946-1951 cohort, aged 45 to 50 years in 1996, now aged 61 to 66 years in 2012 the 1921-1926 cohort, aged 70 to 75 years in 1996, now aged 86 to 91 years in 2012.

The women have now been surveyed up to six times over the past 16 years, providing a large amount of data on their lifestyles, use of health services and health outcomes. In October 2012, the ALSWH will add a new cohort of 18-23 year old women.

The ALSWH is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Health and Ageing. Researchers based in Newcastle work in collaboration with HMRI – a partnership between Hunter New England Health, the University of Newcastle and the community.

ALSWH contacts at UoN:
Professor Julie Byles (ALSWH Co-director): 02 4042 0668
Assoc Prof Deborah Loxton: 02 4042 0690

ALSWH contacts at UQ:
Professor Annette Dobson (ALSWH Director): 07 3365 5346
Professor Gita Mishra: 07 3346 5224
Professor Wendy Brown: 07 3365 6446