National health survey: obesity, chronic conditions rise

By David Donaldson

March 28, 2019

There are few bright spots in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Health Survey results.

Obesity, chronic conditions and mental health are all trending worse, but smoking rates and alcohol consumption continue to improve, according to the survey of over 21,000 Australians.

The typical Australian is a non-smoker and has never smoked, does 42 minutes of exercise every day, is overweight or obese and does not eat enough vegetables.

The number of people who say they are in good health has remained constant over the past decade, at around 56%, while around 15% said they were in fair or poor health.


Just over two-thirds of Australian adults — that’s 12.5 million people — are now considered to be overweight or obese. That figure has risen from 63.4% to 67% in just three years.

A big contributor to the change was people in the 18-24 year old category, with the number of obese or overweight young people rising from 38.9% to 46% in that three-year period.

Men are much more likely to be overweight than women, and approximately one-quarter of all children are overweight or obese. Bucking the trend, the number of overweight children in Victoria fell from 28.6% to 22.6% — although the obesity rate for Victorian adults still rose in that time.

Almost 1 in 11 adults and 1 in 14 children consume sugar sweetened drinks daily.

Only a minority of Australians met physical activity guidelines, with around 2% of 15-17 year olds, 15% of 18-64 year olds and 17% of 65+ year olds.

Chronic conditions

Chronic conditions are on the rise. The number of Australians with one or more chronic conditions has risen from around 42% 10 years ago to around 47% today.

The most common chronic conditions were mental health and behavioural conditions, back problems, arthritis and asthma.

Tasmania does particularly poorly on chronic conditions. ABS Director of Health Louise Gates said that while the older demographic of Tasmania contributed to this, the occurrence of some conditions was still higher than would be expected based on age statistics. They survey showed Tasmanians also more likely to be daily smokers or obese.

Mental health

The proportion of adults who say they are under high or very high psychological distress rose from 11.7% to 13% in three years.

The number of Australians with a mental or behavioural condition rose from 17.5% to around 20% in three years. People reporting anxiety and depression have also increased.


Smoking rates have been falling for a long time — whereas 23.8% of Australians smoked in 1995, today it’s 13.8%.

The number of adults who have never smoked continues to rise, increasing from 49.4% to 55.7% over the past decade. More than three-quarters of 18-24 year olds have never smoked.

The Northern Territory had the highest rate of daily smokers, at 19.6%, compared with 10.6% in Australian Capital Territory.


Unsafe alcohol consumption is decreasing. The number of adults who consumed more than two standard drinks per day on average — exceeding the lifetime risk guideline — fell from 19.5% to 16.1% between 2011-12 and 2017-18.

As with smoking, men are more likely than women to drink more than health authorities recommend.

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