Thriving on movement: Exercise supporting the youth of Australia

As we continue to celebrate 30 years of ESSA, we highlight some of the ground-breaking and innovative work of our members. 
Thriving Exercise Rehabilitation Inc. is one such example. The clinic was awarded Practice of the Year for 2020 and was founded by Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP), Dr Bonnie Furzer, alongside fellow AEP, Dr Kemi Wright.

Their outstanding work in supporting young people through exercise is leading in their field of the health industry. We took a closer look into what drove Bonnie and Kemi to establish the clinic and why they stand out from the crowd.

What was the inspiration for creating Thriving Exercise Rehabilitation?

All young people, regardless of their medical, behavioural or social barriers, should have the opportunity to participate in a positive exercise experience that supports their health. At Thriving, we use our exercise expertise in order to improve the health outcomes of young people, through:

  • Providing evidence-based exercise to support the mental and physical health of kids and young people.
  • Increasing family, community and health professional knowledge of exercise and health, through education and research.

A longer-term aim of Thriving is to develop a network of community-based services and extend specialised youth exercise and health knowledge in communities throughout WA and beyond. We value inclusiveness, expertise and collaboration, and determination. And we celebrate uniqueness and diversity!

What is Thriving all about? Shed some light on Thriving’s mission and goals.

We know exercise is good for people at any age, however, often the opportunity to participate in and have a positive experience is not available in the community for a number of children and young people. We have a large, vulnerable group who are missing out when they should be prioritised. A growing cohort of children and young people experience several medical, social, or developmental barriers, making it increasingly difficult to participate in and benefit from exercise. Having the ability to join a local sporting team at school, university or in the community is something that most of us take for granted.

There are several reasons why children and young people are not able to take up sport in traditional settings. These include mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or substance use disorders or medical or developmental conditions (e.g., childhood cancer, obesity, autism, and ADHD), or the often-underestimated impact of a lack of confidence or motivation for young people to be active.

We are working to ensure that vulnerable young people in our community have access to evidence-based, best practice and enjoyable exercise! There are a few different ways we are tackling this program including:

  • the provision of exercise services,
  • partnerships with community organisation to provide tailored programs/offerings,
  • contributing to ongoing research as a living lab, ensuring participant and practitioner voices are incorporated, and supporting translation into practice, and providing educational opportunities for exercise professionals, community and families around exercise, physical health, and mental health.
Your team has had a very busy couple of years! Share with us some highlights from this time.

There are so many to include!

First was the completion of the Thriving Families Research Trial (2015-2020), and first PhD completion: Director and now Dr Kemi Wright successfully completed her thesis ‘Thriving Families: Improving physical literacy outcomes in children with neurodevelopmental, emotional and/or behavioural problems’.

We held our Inaugural Community Challenge & Fundraising Initiative which included the completion of the Margaret River Ultra Marathon TWICE in 12 months – we were lucky, or unlucky, that the event was held twice in a 6-month period due to COVID-19 delays. We had 15 and then 20 runners complete the event and raised over $20k to support kids and families engage in Thriving programs.

Launched Thriving Connect. These are online programs that were triggered by a need during COVID-19 but have continued to serve a purpose and complement our face-to-face programs for some families who have difficulties with transport.

We also became a clinical partner in the newly (2021) established UWA Mental Health and Exercise Research Group.

We have commenced training with Team Thriving’s first therapy dog, Ernie. He is Head of Engagement and Team Support and attends sessions with kids and young people across various programs. Ernie is regularly selected as the favourite team member, by everyone!
Here are what some families had to say about the Thriving program:

“At Thriving, my son benefits from highly educated instructors who understand his circumstance. They know how to motivate, build up his strength, stamina and skills. They do all this with endless patience, enthusiasm and persistence.”

“Our son ‘S’ is a beautiful 5-year-old boy who loves to play but finds it very challenging that his little body just does not cooperate with his strong mind! The Thriving program has really been an empowering experience for him. It is giving him the ability to work on some core areas that he needs assistance with, particularly physical activity and socialisation. He loves going every week and making his muscles bigger and stronger! What an amazing gift to help our son be the best version of himself!”

“As is typical for children suffering with autism, Kade has low muscle tone and a number of movement and mobility restrictions which prevents him from participating in some physical activities. Since starting the program, he has come along in leaps and bounds with overall fitness and movement and gained skills in balance, strength, and coordination. The staff have given him the skills and confidence to try different forms of physical activity which has helped him immensely to participate more often with his friends at school and at home. In turn, we have a much happier interactive child which makes for a happy family life all round.”

What does the future look like for Thriving?

We have a busy year ahead including the continuation of our after-school services and our program with WA Drug and Alcohol Youth Service. Plus, we are delivering a new program thanks to a grant from the WA Department of Communities to deliver community-based exercise programs for vulnerable young people including those with insecure housing, mental health challenges, and/or socio-economic pressures.

Our education calendar is bursting at the seams for 2022 with the continuation of our paediatric education courses for exercise professionals, Mental Health First Aid, and the launch of two new educational activities for exercise professionals – a series of ‘Clinical Conversations for Charity’ and Exercise and Mental Illness. We look forward to sharing it in a few weeks!

We have some exciting research partnerships and projects kicking off looking at exercise/sport and mental health in young people, and exercise with transgender young people.

Finally, Thriving won Practice of the Year in 2020 – what did that mean to you?

It was very humbling to be nominated, let alone selected by industry and peers as the winner of Practice of the Year. For us personally – given all the efforts, passion and hours that have gone into developing, adapting, and building Thriving over the last 10 years – but also as a wonderful acknowledgement for all the staff, students, families, and kids that have been involved in Thriving.

None of what we have achieved would have been possible without the outstanding students and then exercise professionals who help us deliver our services; the generous contributions and feedback from families, kids, and young people; our staff and board who have guided and supported us to strive towards all of our ambitious goals; plus, a lot of sweat and a few tears along the way.

Supporting health through exercise for 30 years 

To celebrate 30 years of Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), we are reflecting on 30 stories which commemorate the profound impact the exercise and sports science industry and its professionals have had on our communities, and how they have benefited the health landscape in Australia.

Click here to read more like this one