In the Shoalhaven region of the NSW South Coast, there’s a health and fitness revolution underway! The Waminda Aboriginal Women’s Health and Wellbeing Program promotes healthy eating and increased physical activity for Aboriginal women, and the results are speaking for themselves with almost 60kg lost overall and great improvements in fitness and flexibility!
The program includes: a comprehensive and intensive tobacco cessation program, healthy wellbeing camps, support for the community garden, and localised health promotion and health education days. We sat down for a chat with Willow Firth, one of Waminda’s Project Coordinators, to find out more about the project.
Firstly, how did you find yourself working on the Program?
I completed a Bachelor of Applied Science-Sports 12 years ago but, after doing practical stints at the Australian Institute of Sport, I decided I didn’t want to work in the elite athlete field and travelled around Australia in a campervan for 18 months.
I ended up in Queensland working in a Sports Injuries clinic and completed a diploma in remedial massage and Acupuncture. From there I became self-employed therapist specialising in musculoskeletal disorders.
I fortuitously met Faye Worner, the CEO of Waminda, playing hockey. She asked if I would like to come and do a few hours with the organisation – we ran the 10 week pilot program successfully and from there it has become a full time job. It is an absolute privilege working with these women in helping them to achieve their goals and live a happier, healthier life.
So, tell us what the project is all about…
Our program is about having fun whilst learning about healthy lifestyle. We laugh together, exercise together, and try new foods and activities together. We support each other in a safe, culturally appropriate environment to achieve our own goals.
What impact is the program having in your community?
The goal of the program is to provide women with the opportunity to participate in a comprehensive and holistic healthy lifestyle program that incorporates increasing access to physical activity and healthy eating education sessions. Ultimately, we are hoping to change the high rate of chronic disease in our community.
How did you choose the particular focus of your project? Was there a demonstrated need in your community?
Absolutely. We did a 10 week pilot program in three communities. From that initial program, it has evolved and is getting bigger and better all the time. The women are really opening up and discovering that exercise doesn’t have to be awfully hard and boring.
It’s no secret that chronic disease is a huge problem for Indigenous Australians. Most of these conditions are preventable through lifestyle change. So that is our focus – simple ways to live a healthy, happy life.
How is the project making a difference in the community? What changes have you seen?
I have seen very big, exciting changes both in their body composition and in their self-confidence and self-esteem. The women are becoming stronger, both physically and mentally.
The community also now has a garden with vegetables and herbs, giving people a chance to access affordable fresh food items and the opportunity to grow new foods that have not been tasted before.
What have been the biggest successes of the project to date?
The improvements in body composition and cardiovascular health are fantastic, but I’ve really enjoyed watching these women grow within themselves. The improvements in social and emotional health and wellbeing have been by far the most rewarding. This confidence and ability to understand about healthy choices has been an empowering process to watch.
We’ve had participants enter the program with pre-diabetic Blood Sugar Levels but then turn that around with physical activity and a few simple dietary changes.
We’ve also recently had a wave of smoking cessation successes as well. We have many clients either moving through the stages of change or actively quitting. All these factors really change someone’s life path.
There is more to life than chronic disease and premature morbidity. Within this supportive environment the women are seeing and feeling this. It’s an absolute pleasure to observe these life changes knowing the women will get more out of life.
And what have been the biggest challenges?
Probably the two biggest challenges are sorry business and lack of motivation through winter.
The women just don’t want to leave their houses through winter, which we can all relate to. We are trying to work out better intrinsic motivation skills for the women to learn.
This winter we have created a ‘Winter Challenge’. We have done all the tests and measurements and will re-do them on the first day of spring. The participant with the biggest change in body composition and/or cardiovascular fitness will win a prize. So far, this winter our numbers have only slightly dropped which is very encouraging. The types of activities change to suit the season too.
Being flexible within the program is very important, as things change constantly.
Do you think your community(s) will continue spreading the health message after your program ceases?
I think what we are doing is definitely teaching the women about ways to look after themselves and their families in how to be healthy. There has been an exciting ripple effect that has flowed on in their family groups. This is an achievement in itself as the extended family are being taught and educated by the women. They are being educated about simple ideas to incorporate healthy living into their everyday lives outside the program.
However, we are hoping this is an ongoing project. Exercise is not something you do for 10 weeks, 6 months or a year. Exercise is forever. We need to continue to provide these women with an environment they feel comfortable in to continue to exercise and feel good about themselves. The only way good improvements will be sustained is through a sustained effort to the continuation of programs such as these.
We have seen when the program stopped, the women put the weight back on and we were back to square one when they started again. We need to keep them engaged and motivated for long-term health benefits.