Exercise as it relates to Disease/‘Sistas’ and Aunties: sport, physical activity, and Indigenous Australian women

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This fact sheet is an analysis of the study "Sistas' and Aunties: Sport, physical activity and Indigenous Australian Women, by Stronach, Maxwell and Taylor, 2016).[1]

1. What is the Background to this Research?

Physical activity could positively contribute to improving low Indigenous health status[2][3] and has a role in happy communities.[1] ABS data indicates[1] 23.3% of Indigenous women participated in physical activity or organised sport in the last 12 months compared to 66.7% of Non-Indigenous women, this further decreases with age to only 10.6% for Indigenous women over 45.[4]

2. Where is the Research from?

This research was conducted in response to the House of Representatives 2013 call to action to address low rate of participation by Indigenous women, it aimed to tell these women’s story and to identify wants, and needs to increase participation and satisfaction.[1] The lead researcher, Stronach, is originally from the Gooreng-Gooreng nation. The researchers collaborated with UTS Jumbunna Indigenous house of learning and was approved by UTS Aboriginal elder-in-residence and ethics committee.

3. What Type of Research was this?

This study was an exploratory, qualitative study. Western style research techniques such as questionnaires or surveys can be considered patronising,[1] insensitive and misunderstandings can lead to inaccuracies.[5] The researchers adopted the culturally inclusive, Dadirri method. Dadirri involves deep listening and quiet observations.[1][5] Researchers and participants collaborate together on the final result which reflects collaborative, community beliefs.

4. What did the Research Involve?

Literature Review

This research began with a literature review looking at the current voice and image of Indigenous women in sport and reviewing the historical and contemporary social structures that influence participation in physical activity.[1]


22 Indigenous women were selected from two different communities, urban Redfern NSW, home of the Eora nation, with 2.5% Indigenous population and rural Flinders island in Tasmania, where 16.9% of the population identify as Indigenous.


The "Dadirri" concept involves informal group or individual conversations, these were approximately 1 hour long and recorded. It is meant to reflect the strong oral tradition.[5] The researchers covered four topics

  • The meaning of sport and PA in the women’s lives
  • Factors that facilitate or prevent participation
  • Cultural traditions that Indigenous women bring to sport and PA
  • Future hopes and aspirations that sport and PA provide

The researchers then looked for key ideas or themes. Part of Dadirri method involves community participation so participants were invited back to collaborate on the final paper.

5. What were the Basic Results?

The basic results were classified in three broad categories; individual, family and community and external factors,[1] these are summarised below.

Individual Factors

Accepting Responsibility for Children and Family

Kinship and collective society norms often lead women to assist children or family members to participate in physical activity, often at the expense of participating themselves. Some felt guilt over participating in individual activities that were done ‘only’ to benefit one’s own health, they felt their role was an enabler for others in the family.[1]

Taking comfort and drawing responsibility from cultural safety

Many felt more likely to participate in activities that felt culturally safe and were specific for Indigenous women or conducted in a safe community space.

Developing a distinct identity as role model for others

Many women saw their role as a role model for children, they felt they could be a positive role model for physical activity but also wished the media provided girls with more successful female athletes, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Cathy Freeman winning gold at Sydney Olympics, some participants there is no current equivalent Indigenous athlete that today's girls relate to.

Displaying unique self-stereotyping such as natural black athletes[6]

Family and Community Factors

Developing social bonds through PA

Most participants talked about the importance of social and community bonds, many team or group activities were discussed. However the women often took non-participatory roles such as the canteen or BBQ, facilitating sport for other family members (children or males).

Sport and PA being integral to everyday life

For many, culture may revolve around physical activity such as rugby or traditional activities such as hunting or collecting shells.

External and Societal factors

Finance infrastructure and services

Finance was seen as a major inhibitor to meeting the desired amount of participation.

Transport and logistics, especially in remote areas

Lack of transport was a major inhibitor for the rural Flinder's Island participants.

Social issues such as racism

Older participants were more likely to cite racism as a reason for not participating, one women recalled not being able to learn to swim at the pool in her childhood and now being too scared to learn as an adult.

Sport and PA as positive forces

Many of the women cited sport as being a supportive force and breaking negative stereotypes but often wished there was more opportunities.

6. What conclusions can we take from this research?

Sport and PA consistently is shown to be part of Indigenous culture and Identity.[7] This research indicates that opportunities to participate in sport and physical activity that are in culturally safe places and inclusive of families or communities would help increase physical activity for women and therefore overall wellbeing. There was a desire to participate, but this was not always reflected in high participation rates for many reasons.

7. Practical advice

This research was originally conducted with aims to increase programs to address low participation rate and prioritize funding to programs that meet community needs.

The results aimed to facilitate greater inclusions, by encouraging culturally safe spaces to engage and ways to encourage Indigenous women in sport to become role models. Physical activities that are linked to Indigenous community programs were shown to be beneficial. Practical suggestions included scholarships for Indigenous girls and funding for sport and transportation, therefore creating opportunities that are affordable and accessible. Infrastructure and education on physical activity that can include a whole family or community in an active and participatory way. Activities should be family-friendly and community based,[8] women were more likely to participate when activities included others.

As a small qualitative study this research provides a foundation for future research. However on its own this study does not evaluate the effectiveness of specific exercise programs in this population.

8. Further Information

On Sport and Physical activity in the Indigenous community:

  • Stronach, M., D. Adair, and T. Taylor. 2014. “Game Over’: Indigenous Australian Sportsmen and Athletic Retirement.” Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal 2014 (2): 40–58.
  • Macdonald, D., Abbott, R., & Jenkins, D. (2012). Physical activity of remote indigenous australian women: A postcolonial analysis of lifestyle. Leisure Sciences, 34(1), 39-54.

On Indigenous youth in sport and PA, given the importance of participating as a 'role model':

  • Nelson, A. (2009). Sport, physical activity and urban Indigenous young people. Australian Aboriginal Studies, 2009(2), 101-111.
  • Nelson, A. L., Macdonald, D., & Abbott, R. A. (2012). A risky business? health and physical activity from the perspectives of urban Australian Indigenous young people. Health, Risk & Society, 14(4), 325-340.
  • Dalton, B., Wilson, R., Evans, J. R., & Cochrane, S. (2014;2015;). Australian indigenous youth's participation in sport and associated health outcomes: Empirical analysis and implications. Sport Management Review, 18(1), 57.

On Dadirri research method

  • West, R., Stewart, L., Foster, K., & Usher, K. (2012). Through a critical lens: Indigenist research and the dadirri method. Qualitative Health Research, 22(11), 1582-1590.


  1. a b c d e f g h i Stronach, M., Maxwell, H., & Taylor, T. (2016). 'sistas' and aunties: Sport, physical activity, and Indigenous Australian women. Annals of Leisure Research, 19(1), 7
  2. Young, M. (2010). Indigenous health: The benefits and risks of physical activity. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 12, e96-e96.
  3. Thomson, N., & Kirov, E. (2006). Summary of indigenous health: Analysis of physical activity. Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, 30(3), 14-16.
  4. ABS. (2010, October 22). Sport and physical recreation: a statistical overview, Australia, Oct 2010. Retrieved September 1, 2016, from Australian bureau of Statistics: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/4156.0~Oct+2010~Chapter~Indigenous+adults'+participation+in+sport+and+physical+activities?OpenDocument
  5. a b c West, R., Stewart, L., Foster, K., & Usher, K. (2012). Through a critical lens: Indigenist research and the dadirri method. Qualitative Health Research, 22(11), 1582-1590.
  6. Stronach, M., D. Adair, and T. Taylor. 2014. “Game Over’: Indigenous Australian Sportsmen and Athletic Retirement.” Australian Aboriginal Studies Journal 2014 (2): 40–58.
  7. Nelson, A. L., Macdonald, D., & Abbott, R. A. (2012). A risky business? health and physical activity from the perspectives of urban australian Indigenous young people. Health, Risk & Society, 14(4), 325-340.
  8. Hunt, J., Marshall, A. L., & Jenkins, D. (2008). Exploring the meaning of, the barriers to and potential strategies for promoting physical activity among urban Indigenous Australians. Health Promotion Journal of Australia: Official Journal of Australian Association of Health Promotion Professionals, 19(2), 102-108