Keeping Communities Active After Bushfires


As we reflect on 30 years of ESSA, some notable stories that we have come across over the years have been in regard to the endurance and perseverance shown by ESSA professionals and their communities after the tragedies of natural disasters. This includes the success story of the Nordic pole walking groups happening in the Alpine Shire.

Aussies are tough, and we’re made even tougher after constantly facing bushfires, floods, cyclones and droughts. Whilst the pandemic has had a heavy effect on Australia and the world, what can’t go unnoticed is the Australians who are still battling their way though the 2019-2020 bushfires. This includes a wide range of ESSA professionals who, whilst experiencing the elements themselves, continue to service their communities and provide them with much needed exercise and health services.

In early 2020, ESSA approved a variety of bushfire grants to help fund community exercise programs within bushfire effected communities as organised by ESSA members. One of these programs was the Alpine Shire Pole Walking Groups, facilitated by Accredited Exercise Physiologists Leeah Cooper (Equilibre Health) and Greta Donaldson (Alpine Active). After receiving a range of media attention and successful participant outcomes, the duo shared the impact their program, and the funding, had on their community.

The effects of the 2019/2020 bushfires on the Alpine Shire community
The Alpine Shire is situated in North East, Victoria and covers an area of 7,780km2. We have three major townships of Bright, Myrtleford and Mount Beauty as well as Alpine areas such as Dinner Plain. Our estimated total population is around 13,000.

In January 2020, a large proportion of the Alpine Shire was under threat from the bushfire crisis and some areas were directly impacted. Alpine Shire residents were evacuated on a number of occasions during these fires and were affected by constant thick smoke and poor air quality for weeks. As practicing Exercise Physiologists in the area, we were also forced to abandon or modify our businesses due to evacuations and poor air quality. The fires placed significant strain on community spirit, the local economy, and the ability to lead normal everyday lives, including remaining physically active.

The Nordic pole walking groups
As two private practicing AEPs, we collaborated with Alpine Health (local health service) in the application for the ESSA grant, to provide eight free Nordic pole walking groups across the townships of Bright and Myrtleford. This would encourage our community to come together to enjoy a lesser-known type of physical activity in our beautiful surrounds. We were fortunate that both Leeah (AEP) and Maureen Ryland (Health Promotion Officer, Alpine Health) were Nordic walking instructors skilled to lead the sessions, so the grant was utilised to purchase seven sets of Nordic walking poles for use at the groups.

All members of the community were invited to participate, and the groups were promoted through social media, local radio and newspaper, existing clientele, and word of mouth. We had 32 people register for the groups, with many more enquiries. We utilised the Adult Pre-Exercise Screening System (APSS) to screen participants prior to inclusion in the groups. Sessions ran for an hour and included warm-up and cool-down exercises, technique instruction and drills as well as a walk on some of the local trails.

The challenges of COVID-19
Just like other parts of the country, and more specifically Victoria, we were unable to commence the groups as planned in the early part of 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. Once the restrictions started to ease, we believed it was an even more important reason to get the groups up and running as our community had been delivered two major blows in 2020.

We ran the sessions throughout November 2020. In line with COVID-19 regulations at the time, participant numbers were limited to 10 participants per one instructor and where we had two instructors we were able to break up into two groups of 10 and allow a total of 20 participants. We maintained strict social distancing, cleaning procedures and registration of attendance to mitigate risk of spreading COVID-19 during the sessions. Being outdoors made it a little easier to manage with COVID-19.

We had a great amount of interest in both locations and consistently had 10-15 people attend the sessions each week.

Program outcomes
By all accounts and consistency in numbers across the sessions, participants really enjoyed the groups, and many were keen to purchase their own poles. We were able to secure a group discount price on Nordic walking poles for those who wanted to purchase their own poles to continue pole walking on their own. As a result, 15 people purchased their own poles.

One participant from Bright who needs to use a four-wheel walker to ambulate outside her home, decided to buy a set of poles as she found the poles useful and has stated, “I feel as if I have a new pair of legs”. She has set an achievable route outside her home where she can walk with the aid of the poles twice a day, something she didn’t have the confidence to do before attending the sessions.

To make pole walking accessible to more people in the community, the poles purchased with the grant continue to be available for use through a loan system (including a refundable deposit).

Additionally, the other major town of Mount Beauty also expressed interest in running an introduction session last year when they heard about the groups. Leeah and Alpine Heath have supported the Mount Beauty U3A to deliver a session to this township. The U3A intend to continue their own weekly pole walking sessions for their members.

In Myrtleford, participants of the groups still continue to meet at the same location with or without poles to walk together which is a really great outcome for both encouraging people to be physically active and stay socially connected.
Moving forward
We were both really pleased in the level of interest for the sessions and proud of our collaboration to give participants a chance to get out in the community, be physically active and socialise after a particularly challenging year of bushfires and COVID-19 restrictions. We have previously worked together in other local community events and see strength in our collaboration as Accredited Exercise Physiologists working in close proximity to each other, rather than competition.

Leeah had such great interest in the pole walking sessions that she has established an ongoing Nordic walking group in Bright. Leeah is encouraging inactive, older adults to attend the sessions, with a subsidy for up to 12 sessions for eligible participants through the Exercise Right for Active Ageing (ERAA) program.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank ESSA for the funding for our community and to Alpine Health for their support. The funding has enabled bigger things to grow, all of which have surpassed our expectations. The best thing of all, it has led to an activated community who are getting active, getting outdoors and socially connecting.

If you'd like to locate an ESSA accredited exercise professional to help keep your community active, visit our online search function today.

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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