Regular exercise is important for Indigenous women’s health, as it protects against obesity and chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. These conditions are more prevalent among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than non-Indigenous people.
Women’s physical activity benefits whole communities. Active mothers and aunts are important role models for their children and peers; while women’s involvement as sport leaders, coaches and participants can empower Indigenous girls to participate in sports at community to elite levels.
Yet participation is low. In 2012, only 23.3% of Indigenous women played sport, walked for fitness or leisure, or were physically active in the previous 12 months. This compares with two-thirds (66.7%) of non-Indigenous women.
For some older Indigenous women we interviewed for our research, past racist beliefs and practices continued to inhibit them. One woman recalled not being able to learn to swim as a child at her local pool. This was back when Australian pools were sites of segregation. Now, as an adult, she is too scared to learn.
Our research also found that some Aboriginal people viewed time spent participating in sport and physical activity as “selfish” because it took them away from their family care commitments and responsibilities.
First, governments need to fund programs that meet Indigenous women’s needs, and are designed with input from Indigenous women.
Such programs are more likely to succeed if they are family-friendly and community-based, as Aboriginal women participate at a greater rate when activities include their friends and peers.