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AUSactive: Targeted cost‑of‑living relief for Australians to improve quality of life

As the peak body for the exercise and active health sector, AUSactive’s mission is to inspire all Australians to embrace a more active lifestyle.

However, with all corners of our communities grappling with increased cost-of-living pressures in today’s world, paid accessibility to exercise is often seen as a discretionary spend that is easily cut from a family’s or individual’s budget.

“According to the National Australia Bank, people are neglecting their fitness and wellbeing, with gym memberships being among the first expenses to be cut.”

The impact this has on our overall health and wellbeing, and that of the Australian healthcare system, is devastating.

The solution; a genuine wellbeing 2024–25 Budget

AUSactive wants to work with the government to address our physical inactivity crisis, which has evolved into a major public health issue. With the Federal Budget coming up, AUSactive is asking the government to:

  1. Grant employers an exemption under the Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) legislation, to enable them to provide their staff with gym memberships without penalty; and

  2. Allow Australians to claim an income tax deduction for bona fide active health participation and gym memberships.

These changes need no budget allocation. However, they will support preventive health initiatives, allowing employers to promote physical activity to improve their employees’ wellbeing, and incentivise individuals to invest in their health by taking up exercise programs.

Reducing barriers to accessing physical activity that is performed in safe, supportive and supervised gyms and active health facilities will see a significant reduction in government expenditure on Medicare, as fewer Australians develop chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression, anxiety, dementia and poor mental health.

Australia’s poor state of ‘health’

AUSactive CEO Barrie Elvish said even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, alarming statistics revealed that one in nine Australians were becoming sedentary, costing an estimated $15.6 billion annually in healthcare expenses and lost productivity directly attributable to physical inactivity.

“The detrimental impact of Australians’ sedentary lifestyles is contributing to the staggering $27 billion per annum spent treating chronic disease,”Mr Elvish said. 

“People cited reasons such as time constraints, numerous commitments, age-related challenges, poor health, or injuries for their inactivity. The justification and excuses became easier than actually getting active.

“Our sedentary lifestyle is further compounded by Australians spending an average of over 10 hours daily on digital devices, contributing to the increase in depression in adolescents, with depression being the third highest burden of all diseases nationally.

“Further, for a nation that considers itself sporting, Australia’s global ranking of 140th out of 146 countries for high physical inactivity levels for adolescents is, frankly, embarrassing.”

Mr Elvish said that more than half of Australian adults (55 per cent) do not meet the recommended physical activity guidelines, highlighting the seriousness of the issue.

“The evidence is clear; physical activity is not just essential but one of the most successful and cost-effective strategies for preventing and managing a multitude of health problems in the population,” he said.

“It can lower coronary heart disease by 35 per cent, and the benefits also include a 50 per cent lower risk of type 2 diabetes, a 50 per cent lower risk of colon cancer, a 20 per cent lower risk of breast cancer, an 83 per cent lower risk of osteoarthritis, a 68 per cent lower risk of hip fracture, a 30 per cent lower risk of early death, a 30 per cent lower risk of depression, and a 30 per cent lower risk of dementia. The positive benefits are endless.”

FBT exemption

AUSactive urges the government to grant employers an exemption under the Fringe Benefits Tax (FBT) legislation, to enable them to provide their staff with gym memberships without penalty.

According to a Deloitte Survey, a significant 91.8 per cent of employers expressed a willingness to provide gym memberships and fitness benefits to their employees.

This exemption will improve access to physical activity programs for employees and will level the playing field for businesses of all sizes.

Allowing employers to pay for gym memberships without penalty becomes an economic relief measure for employees, especially as Australians seek government support in managing their cost of living. This aligns with the current sentiments of the population, particularly young people, who say that they believe that government intervention could significantly improve their financial challenges.

The benefits of such a policy change would be far-reaching. It would help businesses to attract staff by offering desirable benefits, support businesses struggling with the challenges of empty central business districts due to increased remote work by incentivising individuals to return to cities to utilise gym memberships, and it would boost workplace productivity by increasing employee’s cognitive function, improving workplace morale and addressing absenteeism, estimated to cost $7 billion annually, and presenteeism, costing nearly $26 billion annually.

Active health and gym membership tax deduction

AUSactive believes it should be possible for Australians to claim bona fide active health participation (from personal trainers to Pilates, Yoga and Tai Chi) and gym memberships as a tax deduction on their income.

Making gym memberships tax-deductible will relieve cost of living pressures for people who are looking after their health and will encourage people to engage in regular exercise, contributing to a healthier and more productive population.

This change would also be significant to those experiencing exceptional financial stressors as, according to the National Australia Bank, these people are neglecting their fitness and wellbeing, with gym memberships being among the first expenses to be cut.

Mr Elvish said this would demonstrate the government’s support for healthy lifestyle choices and preventive healthcare.

“We must make exercise more accessible and incentivise Australians to move more. It is ironic that a taxpayer can claim a deduction for a donation to health-related organisations but not to proactively improve their own health,” Mr Elvish said.

“There is clear evidence that this policy change would be well received by Australians, as people show a strong preference to exercise in an active health setting or fitness centre.

“It is no coincidence when gyms closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, international data saw a 47 per cent drop in activity levels (as documented by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

“The government’s own AUSPlay data also indicates fitness and gym participation continues to increase, and is now the most popular form of physical activity or sport for males over 15 years and is second to walking for females in the same age cohort.”

A way forward

To leverage these strategies, AUSactive emphasises the necessity of a third crucial initiative: a collaborative effort with the government and grassroots organisations to launch a national public health campaign that has a major focus on those who are disproportionally affected by chronic disease rates and poor mental health.

This campaign will educate Australians on the integral role of physical activity in enhancing both their physical and mental wellbeing. By empowering individuals to apply this knowledge in their lives and make informed decisions, substantial savings can be realised in the healthcare budget through a decrease in hospital admissions and reliance on treatments for preventable conditions associated with a lack of physical activity.

Collectively, these proposals present a proactive approach to preventive healthcare, that will enhance the overall health and wellbeing of our nation.

All facts and figures presented in this article are from AUSactive’s Budget Submission 2024-25.

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