The role of physical activity in closing the health gap for Indigenous populations

Today marks National Close the Gap Day, a time for all Australians to come together and commit to achieving health equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

Working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is one of the critical success factors, and we all have an opportunity this National Close the Gap Day to send a clear message that Australians value health equality as a fundamental right for all.

“At Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), we recognise the need to continue to bridge the long-standing disparities in health status that exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and non-Indigenous Australians, through both our organisation and our professionals,” says ESSA Chief Executive Officer, Anita Hobson-Powell.

“As the accrediting body for exercise and sports science professionals, it is important that ESSA leads and creates real change around health and well-being and fairness in the workplace for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” 

Physical inactivity is the third leading risk factor in the Indigenous population, with its effect manifested through a range of diseases, most notably ischaemic heart disease (55% of the burden attributed to physical inactivity) and diabetes (33%).

“The health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is large, which not only sees our people dying much younger, but also suffering from a poorer quality of life for the decades leading up to their death,” says Ray Kelly, a Kamilaroi man with 28 years’ experience in the health industry.

“Type 2 diabetes and heart disease are our greatest health concerns, yet both are highly preventable and reversible diseases. More effective programs around exercise and nutrition need to be made available.”

Ray, an Accredited Exercise Physiologist providing diabetes programs throughout Australia and completing research in the reversal of diabetes within the Indigenous community, explains that lifestyle management is supposed to be the first line of treatment for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, but that is not currently happening. 

“Research shows that effective lifestyle programs can achieve reversal of chronic disease in many patients and this is something we have seen within our own programs in remote New South Wales, where patients have been able to come off insulin entirely within weeks. Yet, with current treatments, less than 50% of all Australians with diabetes are achieving ideal blood sugars, let alone reversal.” 

ESSA supports the notion that local, exercise professionals who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are the best placed professionals to educate and engage Indigenous communities on the benefits of exercise for their physical and mental health and well-being.

“Effective lifestyle programs need to be provided at every medical centre if we are ever going to stop the progress of these diseases. In respect to Indigenous health, we need to have local Indigenous people involved in the planning and implementation of programs. It’s not enough to simply bring any Indigenous person from outside the local area in to guide the program because we are not a homogeneous group. Indigenous people who live within the local community will understand the local issues, but will also have the connections to make the program engaging,” says Mr Kelly. 

ESSA, in consultation with Reconciliation Australia,will also be releasing its Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in the coming months.

“Through its RAP plan, ESSA aims to engage in meaningful conversations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and address some of the inequities that exist between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous Australians, including helping to close the health gap that exists,” adds Ms Hobson-Powell.

“A better understanding of our cultural ways of being and how this knowledge can be adapted to the way we provide sport, exercise and exercise physiology services will improve the standard, reputation and reach of the exercise and sports science industry.”

To find out more about National Close the Gap Day, visit the ANTaR website.