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Study to better measure physical activity

Study to better measure physical activity among New Zealanders

SPARC and the Ministry of Health announced today that Auckland UniServices (University of Auckland) is undertaking a study to assess the effectiveness of a new questionnaire to measure physical activity among New Zealand adults.

The questionnaire that is being tested was developed in 2001 through a partnership between SPARC (formerly the Hillary Commission) and the Ministry of Health, with input and advice from Statistics New Zealand.

The new physical activity questionnaire will become part of the national sport and physical activity survey that SPARC uses to determine how physically active New Zealanders are. The new questionnaire aims to get more detailed information about physical activity levels by asking about the intensity of activity, and the contexts in which people are active, for example whether as part of sport and recreation, for work or transportation. A key element of the new questionnaire is to ascertain how many people do enough physical activity to benefit their health.

A research team led by Dr Robert Scragg, Senior Lecturer, Department of Community Health, will conduct the study over the next year, testing the new questionnaire with 180 participants, including a representative sample of Mäori, New Zealand European and Pacific peoples, of different ages and gender. Dr Scragg says "the study will assess how useful the questionnaire is in accurately recording the self-reported physical activity levels of participants compared with the actual measurement of participants' physical activity levels using heart rate monitors".

The questionnaire is also being tested against international physical activity questionnaires to see how closely it matches them so that in the future New Zealand data can be more directly compared with international surveys of physical activity.

Grant McLean, Senior Advisor, Research at SPARC said that "we have a goal of New Zealand becoming the most active nation and fundamental to this goal is having an accurate baseline picture of the physical activity levels of New Zealanders".

The close link between increasing physical activity and improving population health is reflected in the design of the new questionnaire.

Physical inactivity in New Zealand is thought to be second only to smoking and nutrition as a modifiable risk factor for poor health and is associated with eight percent of all deaths. Physical inactivity is estimated to account for over 2600 deaths per year, amounting to 29,000 years of life lost per year. A 10 percent increase in participation in physical activity, could result in 600 fewer deaths per year.

Physical activity is important for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease (New Zealand's biggest killer), some cancers, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, depression, and falls in older people. "Increasing physical activity is vitally important if we are to combat the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes now affecting the health of New Zealanders and which are projected to grow rapidly over the next ten years", said Mr McLean.

Dr Martin Tobias, Principal Analyst, Public Health Directorate, Ministry of Health explains that "with strong evidence of the health consequences of physical inactivity and the benefits of increased physical activity it is critical to know how many people are doing enough physical activity to benefit their health. This means asking more detailed questions about the amount of effort put into physical activity, and how regularly people engage in physical activity, not just measuring the total amount of time spent being physically active". It also means finding out where people are active so that we can design programmes that support physical activity in different contexts, such as work, sport and recreation and for transport (commuting to work or school). SPARC recently released the latest statistics on physical activity in New Zealand, which show that physical activity levels among New Zealanders appear relatively high at 68%. However, this also means that 32% of New Zealanders are not doing enough physical activity to benefit their health, which equates to more than 1 million individuals. Another concern is that while more adults are taking up physical activity, young people appear to be less physically active.

The new questionnaire has been primarily redesigned to measure physical activity among adults as a first step to improving the national survey. SPARC is also planning additional work to improve the measurement of physical activity among children and young people.

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