Home » Tax-deductible gym memberships? This group reckons it’s a no-brainer

Tax-deductible gym memberships? This group reckons it’s a no-brainer

Gym owner Amanda Heffernan says she can almost set her watch to cancelled memberships as soon as the cost of living rises.

Interest rates or rental rises: cancelled memberships.

Electricity prices go up: cancelled memberships.

Groceries become more expensive: cancelled memberships.

“We pretty much see emails coming through instantaneously for people cancelling,” she said.

Amanda says people stop coming to her gym whenever these is a price hike on rates, power or groceries.(ABC News: Billy Cooper)

That’s a trend AUSactive, a lobby group for the fitness industry, wants to see reversed.

The group has written to the federal government, urging it to offer more support for initiatives that could get people to be healthier and more active.

Barrie Elvish

Fitness lobbyist Barrie Elivsh believes tax-deductible gym memberships could transform health outcomes in Australia.(Supplied)

Key among them — it wants gym memberships to be tax-deductible.

It’s part of a three-point preventative health plan that would see an expansion of fringe benefits tax (FBT) incentives for corporate gym memberships and fitness initiatives.

The proposal also emphasises a renewed public messaging campaign to encourage, educate, and explain the benefits of healthier eating and living.

“The health system in Australia is unsustainable,” AUSactive CEO Barrie Elvish said.

“If we can keep people out of that system for longer, that’s going to save the government billions of dollars.”

He likened the proposal for tax incentives to how superannuation helps keep people off the pension, and private health insurance helps to keep people out of the public health system.

Why is preventative healthcare so important? 

Countless studies have shown physical exercise is important for treating and preventing non-communicable illnesses and diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or breast and colon cancer.

It also helps to improve a person’s overall physical and mental well-being.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists “insufficient physical exercise” as the fourth-leading risk factor in mortality, saying it’s responsible for approximately 3.2 million deaths each year.

It also costs the living — WHO estimated that, in 2013, the price of physical inactivity globally was $US54 billion per year in direct healthcare, with an additional $US14 billion attributable to lost productivity. 

It also warned that women, people with disability, and those from lower socio-economic areas often have fewer opportunities to access safe and affordable exercise programs.

In its report Global Action Plan on Physical Activity 2018-2030, the WHO urged governments to use a strategic combination of policies and actions “aimed at improving the social, cultural, economic and environmental factors that support physical activity, combined with ‘downstream’, individually focused (educational and informational) approaches”.

According to the Grattan Institute, Australia invests far less in preventing illness than many other wealthy countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom.

A report from the think tank, released last year, warned:

“We’re sleepwalking into a sicker future that will condemn millions of Australians to living with avoidable disease and disability.”

The group urged governments to fund effective preventative health programs.

Likewise, a paper published in 2019 estimated that Australia lost about $15.6 billion per year due to physical inactivity, and $561 million for individual dietary risk factors.

Any activity is better than nothing 

Doctor Michael Wright is a health economist and the deputy chairman of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners NSW/ACT branch.

In his view, there is no one simple fix for Australia’s preventable health problem, but greater participation in exercise would be a strong start.

Group of women do an adductor stretch while facing a mirror in a gym studio.

When the cost of living climbs, fitness enthusiasts drop their memberships. (ABC News: Billy Cooper )

Dr Wright recommends patients make small but regular changes, such as getting off the bus a stop or two early or setting themselves a challenge to walk a certain number of steps each day.

While he welcomed AUSactive’s proposal he said there were also free online resources people could use, encouraging those who needed extra support or advice to speak with their GP.

He also added that any activity was better than no activity.

“It helps you manage your weight … so reduces your risk of diabetes, getting heart disease, and in the long term also helps your physical health,” he said.

“Being inside also increases your risk of osteoporosis, decreases your balance, and is also bad for your mental health.”

Tony Calarc stands with his hands behind his back in an empty gym in front of gym equipment

Tony Calarc has been a regular gym-goer for two years.(ABC News)

That’s certainly been the case for Tony Calarc, who has been a regular gym-goer for two years.

In that time, he has become physically and mentally fitter.

“One of the biggest changes for me has been my appearance which, in turn, gives you a lot more self-confidence – I know it has for me,” he said.

“Mentally, it’s amazing because you have that goal to work towards. It gives you a motivation.”

Woman with black hair sits on chest press machine at the gym.

Louise goes to the gym to keep active and improve her mental health.(ABC News: Billy Cooper )

Teacher Louise Gentile has been attending exercise classes for about a decade and for her, a gym membership is a necessity.

“I see it as a huge mental health benefit as well as trying to stay fit and strong,” she told the ABC during a class.

She said her gym membership added to cost-of-living pressures, but was something she prioritised for her work-life balance.

Health benefits will take a ‘generation of behavioural change’

AUSactive has submitted its plan as a pre-budget submission.

The proposal has not been costed so it’s unclear how much the measures would cost in both up-front expenditure and reduced tax revenue.

“We haven’t costed it up because we don’t know how many people will take it up,” Mr Elivish said.

“The question really should be: how much can the government save by encouraging more Australians to go to the gym?”

Either way, Mr Elivish knows it will be a tough sell to Treasury, especially when the benefits aren’t immediately apparent.

“This is going to take a generation of behavioural change, but the benefits will be ongoing.”

While the cost benefits of improved physical fitness are well documented, the Australian government is also facing financial pressures making policies that would deliver less tax revenue unappealing.

Shadow sports minister Anne Ruston told the ABC she did see value in the proposal, but stopped short of saying the opposition would offer bipartisan support.

Anne Ruston touches her glasses while standing at a press conference

Shadow sports minister Anne Ruston says the proposal has merit.(ABC News: Andy Kennedy)

“Australians could be healthier, they could be more active, they could be eating better diets,” Ms Ruston said.

“We’re very keen to say to the government, ‘You should be considering all options that allow Australians to be healthier and happier’, because that’s the way that you end up addressing not only your budget, but you also have a happier Australia.”

In a written response to the ABC, Health Minister Mark Butler said more needed to be done to empower Australians to lead a healthy lifestyle, and that his department was working on the National Preventative Health Strategy.

“My department is working collaboratively with all states and territories to build on obesity prevention and treatment policies, including identifying priority areas for action,” Mr Butler said.

“AUSactive’s submission will be considered as part of the normal budget process.”

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health examined tax incentives offered in parts of Canada to help cover the cost of physical activities for teens and children.

It concluded that tax-based measures risked excluding poorer communities and carried substantial costs.

It also said consideration should be given to whether public funds would be better spent if they went directly towards improving recreational facilities, transport networks, and improving physical education in schools.