Active and Inactive Young Australians

Active and Inactive Young Australians

An Independent Review of Research into Enablers and Barriers to Participation in
Sport, Active Recreation and Physical Activity among Children and Adolescents.

Executive Summary

The purpose of this review is to identify what is known about barriers and enablers of participation in physical activity (including sport and active recreation) among children and young people aged 3-18 years, living in Australia. It has been compiled at the request of the NSW Office of Sport and primarily for consideration by the Committee of Australian Sport and Recreation Officials (CASRO).

During childhood and adolescence, physical activity (PA) is important for motor and cognitive development, as well as psychosocial and cardiometabolic health. Movement skills and experiences in childhood and adolescence lay the foundation for participation in PA and sport in those formative years and across the life course. Yet many Australian children are missing out on these benefits; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) data show that overall, 30% of children aged 2–17 are not achieving the levels of PA recommended in Australia’s PA and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.

The reviewed evidence indicates that PA barriers, preferences, personal level motivations and enablers vary:

  • across the life course;
  • by gender;
  • at family / household level;
  • by socio-economic status; and
  • by cultural and linguistic diversity (CALD).

Strategies, policies, plans and programs purporting to promote and increase PA through the life course, including childhood and adolescence, need to reflect this diversity in barriers/enablers and to tailor strategies according to the particular populations being served (target group segmentation) – life course stage, female gender, lower SES background, CALD communities.

Research studies identify barriers and enablers at the individual, family and household levels, but also at higher levels of influence, including policy, program, organisation and environment; to increase participation, the strategy levers at these higher levels of influence must be targeted in a comprehensive, intersectoral and whole-of-system approach. Some studies describe ‘modifiable’ and ‘non-modifiable’ barriers; for example, age and gender are ‘non-modifiable’ in research studies which focus on the individual. The key proposition that emerges from the evidence is that organisational, policy and service responses are modifiable. These are the higher-level factors that can and need to be prioritised for strategic action. Current World Health Organization [WHO]-led research states that the problem of insufficient PA is global and recommends that urgent scaling up is needed of known effective policies and programs to increase PA in adolescents. Multisectoral action is needed to offer opportunities for young people to be active, involving education, urban planning, road safety and other key actors.

Specific transition points during the life course are associated with changes in PA and/or sedentary behaviour; the change can be positive or negative. For example, sedentary behaviour tracks from early to middle childhood (the 0-5-year old period) suggesting the need to intervene early. Evidence points to two key windows of opportunity for early intervention: (i) the after childcare/school period, and (ii) the transition from childcare to school. Three enabling approaches for this transition period are recommended:

  • “goals and planning” (using behavioural contracting);
  • “repetition and substitution” (using graded task-setting); and
  • “reward and treat” (incorporating incentives).

The adolescence–to–adulthood transition is an important window for intervention. Participation in PA and especially in sport is lower in adulthood than in childhood and adolescence. The steepest declines in participation occur during later adolescence. This is a transition period in which to target policy actions and interventions – positive behaviours established in this stage have the potential to last into later adulthood.

In the Australian research evidence into barriers to participation, a key finding is the apparent lack of age-appropriate or engaging service offerings in organised sport and PA outside of school hours for children under 8 years of age and for teenagers. The lack of age-appropriate offerings affects 85% of 0-4-year-olds and 22% of 5-8-year-olds, whilst 37% of 12-14-year-olds dislike the sport and PA options available.

Several recent reports and frameworks produced by the Australian Government have been noted in this review and provide a sound basis for action; an example is the Drivers of Participation Framework and Toolkit. Similarly, one international and two Australian case studies are provided to showcase concrete examples of relevant policy actions.

Based on the reviewed evidence, five strategic principles and ten policy options are recommended for consideration by Australian State and Territory governments.


Bellew, B., Rose, C., Reece, L. Active and Inactive Young Australians. An Independent Review of Research into Enablers and Barriers to Participation in Sport, Active Recreation and Physical Activity among Children and Adolescents. Produced for the NSW Office of Sport by the SPRINTER Research Group, Prevention Research Collaboration, Charles Perkins Centre, The University of Sydney, 2020.

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