Background: This paper provides an historical review of physical activity policy development in Australia for a period spanning a decade since the release of the US Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health in 1996 and including the 2004 WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. Using our definition of 'HARDWIRED' policy criteria, this Australian review is compared with an international perspective of countries with established national physical activity policies and strategies (New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Scotland, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Finland). Methods comprised a literature and policy review, audit of relevant web sites, document searches and surveys of international stakeholders.
Results: All these selected countries embraced multi-strategic policies and undertook monitoring of physical activity through national surveys. Few committed to policy of more than three years duration and none undertook systematic evaluation of national policy implementation. This Australian review highlights phases of innovation and leadership in physical activity-related policy, as well as periods of stagnation and decline; early efforts were amongst the best in the world but by the mid-point of this review (the year 2000), promising attempts towards development of a national intersectoral policy framework were thwarted by reforms in the Federal Sport and Recreation sector. Several well received reviews of evidence on good practices in physical activity and public health were produced in the period but leadership and resources were lacking to implement the policies and programs indicated. Latterly, widespread publicity and greatly increased public and political interest in chronic disease prevention, (especially in obesity and type 2 diabetes) have dominated the framework within which Australian policy deliberations have occurred. Finally, a national physical activity policy framework for the Health sector emerged, but not as a policy vision that was inclusive of the other essential sectors such as Education, Transport, Urban Planning as well as Sport and Recreation.
Conclusion: Despite some progression of physical activity policy in the decade since 1995/6, this review found inconsistent policy development, both in Australia and elsewhere. Arguably, Australia has done no worse than other countries, but more effective responses to physical inactivity in populations can be built only on sustainable multi-sectoral public health policy partnerships that are well informed by evidence of effectiveness and good practice. In Australia and elsewhere prerequisites for success are political support, long-term investment and commitment to program implementation and evaluation. An urgent priority is media and political advocacy for physical activity focussed on these factors.