Health Agenda

Mental Health

Bush Bootcamps: How fitness is improving rural and remote mental health

One trail-blazing woman is improving the mental and physical health of rural and remote communities around Australia though her grassroots initiative, Active Farmers.

Ginny Stevens has an affinity with the land. She grew up on a farm in Tasmania and worked on a cattle station in the Northern Territory before studying agricultural science at The University of Melbourne.

This evolved into an eight-year agribusiness banking career, which took her to farming communities across the Northern Territory and the Riverina in New South Wales. In Wagga Wagga, she met her husband-to-be; that’s how she ended up on a farm in the small community of Mangoplah.

Living in small country towns and visiting farmers for work showed Ginny how tough social isolation and limited access to services like doctors, hospitals and psychologists could be. “The more remote you go, the worse it gets,” she says. “Isolation is a really big thing. Then you have financial stress, unpredictable seasonal conditions, commodity price risk – there’s so much unknown. I just felt sad that some people get so stressed and feel so helpless that they end up taking their own lives.”

Creating a sense of social connectedness in the bush

The National Rural Health Alliance reports that people in rural areas rate their life satisfaction at a higher level than people in major cities, but echoing Ginny’s observations, rural communities also have higher rates of self-harm and suicide, along with reduced access to mental health support.

When it comes to physical rural health, a higher proportion of remote Australians smoke, drink to excess and use illegal drugs, and are more likely to be obese and physically inactive, according to the Alliance.

In late 2014, Ginny felt compelled to change these statistics. For inspiration, she drew on her love of fitness and team sports – not just for the exercise but also for social connectedness.

“Doing exercise, keeping fit, it helps you focus and feel good; you get those regular endorphins. And you also see your friends every single week,” she says.

These reflections were the genesis of what was to become a national initiative, Active Farmers, aiming to improve physical and mental health, and build community resilience.

Today, Active Farmers is a positive presence in more than 30 rural communities in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia. South Australia is next on the agenda. By June 2020, Ginny plans to have Active Farmers programs running in 70 small communities around the country.

Group fitness on the farm with Ginny

Ginny wasted no time getting online personal training certificates and started up a weekly Active Farmers group in Mangoplah in March 2015. She quickly expanded to nearby town Uranquinty. Active Farmers now has a team of more than 20 personal trainers running its programs.

The group fitness classes include an array of cardio and strengthening activities in a circuit-training format. People from all ages can attend, and the classes are tailored to suit individual fitness levels.

At first, Ginny ran the rural health fitness classes for 18 months while continuing her job as a bank manager. “Then a business approached me that was interested in sponsoring it.” Ginny partnered with Delta Agribusiness, quit her job and planned a large-scale rollout.

“It’s filled a niche gap in the market that I didn’t realise was so big; people feeling so disconnected, realising they need to exercise and that it makes them feel good.

“That social interaction is so important for the small communities, for resilience and just keeping an eye on each other and having fun, getting off the farm.”

Weekly fitness challenges delivered by Facebook Messenger

In 2019, Ginny trialled an online, four-week lifestyle challenge with 24/7 personal contact available called PATH, a participant in the HCF Catalyst health tech accelerator program. The challenge was delivered via a chatbot, which is built in to Facebook Messenger, delivering weekly health challenges and check-ins, daily encouragement and a package of tools and resources to support users to make healthy habit shifts for their physical and mental wellbeing. 

The feedback from people is incredible. People just want more of what we’re doing,” says Ginny. With one in two Australians likely to suffer some form of mental illness in their lifetime, Ginny says the provision of tools and support to the bush is essential.

Flexing the community muscle

Ginny notes that the hardest thing for many people is simply getting out of the house. “Once they’re there, they love it,” she says. “They can talk to other people who are going through similar things.

“They know it’s good for them and they know it’s good for their entire community, and that’s why they just want more people to become involved.”

Mangoplah farmers Tanya and Russell Menzies are among those urging others to go. They’ve attended classes since the program’s inception, even though they sometimes struggle to make it regularly, especially during harvest time.

“But if you get there and you’ve been there for two or three weeks in a row, you can really feel the difference – feeling fitter, you do feel better,” Russell says.

Tanya also enjoys seeing other people and having a chat. “If you’re stuck on a farm all day, you don’t really come across that many people.”

One woman attending their group is a solicitor. With the stress of running her own business, her exercise had slipped. When she developed some heart issues, her cardiologist told her to get back into an exercise routine.

“Which is what she did via Active Farmers,” says Ginny. “Within six months she got her blood pressure down, she doesn’t need to be on medication, and she’s feeling much more positive.”

Check out Active Farmers for more information.

If you or someone you know may be experiencing depression, go to Beyond Blue or call 1300 22 4636; or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Words by Natalie Parletta
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of HCF’s Health Agenda magazine.

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