Benefits of being active are many

Ginny Stevens is the driving force behind Active Farmers.

Growing up on a farm in Tasmania and now living on a farm at Mangoplah, 30kms south of Wagga Wagga, with her husband Andy Ginny knows better than most the challenges farmers face in staying fit and well.

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Having worked in many regional and rural farming communities throughout her career, Ginny launched Active Farmers in 2015 – a registered not-for-profit bringing together farmers and small farming communities for group fitness sessions to improve physical health and mental wellbeing.

“I’ve always been really active and loved team sports. Growing up, I didn't really think much about it. I just loved it and knew it was good for you.

Over time, Ginny came to reflect on her experience with team sport and the mental health benefits that come from the combination of social connection and exercise. It was during one of these moments of reflection that Ginny first thought to start her own business to create just that opportunity for farmers and rural communities, catering for all levels of fitness and ability, shapes and sizes. Active Farmers was born.

“Over time I started reflecting on the fact that when you're in a team sport, you're exercising which releases good endorphins that make you feel great but you're also seeing friends all the time.”

“I had worked as a jillaroo in the Northern Territory for 12 months, did a three-year Ag science degree, and had an eight-year agri-business banking career. In that time, I became really passionate about people that live in farming communities – these amazing, genuine, down-to-earth people who were affected by mental health issues and suicide.

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“That’s when I thought about the team sport concept, and the fact that when you’re exercising, you’re also seeing your teammates and you’re keeping an eye on each other. There are just so many amazing, proactive benefits for mental health and also resilience. I started Active Farmers in March 2015 as a way to do my bit to keep my rural community going.”

Strong connections

What started as a weekly get together to help her local Mangoplah community to get off the farm, out of the house and to connect with one another, has become an organisation now servicing 34 farming communities in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia, and soon to be in South Australia.

“We've done a lot in two years. In addition to the group fitness, we now also have some amazing partners that run health-related workshops for us such as mental health first aid, nutrition and mindfulness because there's far more than just exercising and social interaction making up your whole health and wellbeing.

“We want to be servicing 70 communities by June 2020, something we just couldn’t do without our committed team of 24 personal trainers. They are the people who make it all work and every week are out there doing their bit for their communities.”

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Focussing on whole health and wellbeing and providing mental health support is increasingly important for Ginny and the business.

“Throughout my career, I came to learn that the number one thing driving poor mental health and suicide is isolation. You combine that with being at the mercy of Mother Nature, commodity price risks, financial stress, and limited access to services, in particular health services, and you’ve got a problem.

“Plus, there is the stigma attached to mental health in the bush – that traditional nature of, ‘I'm tough, I can do it myself. I don't need help. I don't want to seem weak’.

“We did a survey end of last year and over half the people that did the survey said the number one reason they come is because of the social interaction and the community connectedness. The exercise is almost a side benefit.

“So, what Active Farmers does first and foremost is get people together. And then we offer support in the other aspects of wellbeing.”

Ginny said that maintaining connection was especially important in this time of drought.

“We are feeling the effects of the drought first-hand living on the farm at Mangoplah and it's really tough. People are concerned for each other’s mental health and the people that come to Active Farmers are really recognising that now, more than ever, people need to invest in their own health and keep an eye out for each other. The more people we can get to be involved, the more we can build that within communities.”

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Overcoming obstacles

One way Ginny sought to band people together throughout the drought was the Active Farmers Games. Supported by the Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network through its Murrumbidgee Community Grants program, the Games brought together 250 people in Temora in March.

“We had an obstacle course that went around Lake Centenary, and it involved hay wall climbs and mud crawls. All the adults that completed it finished covered in mud and grinning from ear to ear. It was quite amazing to see so many people smiling and laughing.

“It is so important to have events for people to attend that are uplifting and positive and fun to take their minds off the drought, and to know that they're not the only ones going through it. Other people are struggling as well.”

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GINNY’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR KEEPING ACTIVE:

  1. Find a friend to exercise and commit with. Nobody likes letting their friends down!

  2. Pick an event to work towards. There's nothing like having a run, or a walk, or a swim to train towards. It helps hold you accountable.

  3. Select exercise that you like. There's no point taking up swimming if you can’t swim very well. There's plenty of different exercise options available to do like walking, running, yoga, or high intensity exercises. Find something that you like otherwise it's not going to work.

  4. Plan your routine. Sit down on a Sunday and work out which days and times you're going to exercise. Your chances of actually getting exercise into your routine are going to be better if you plan.

  5. Get organised the night before. Put your exercise clothes on the floor or put your alarm away from you so that you can't hit snooze. Really commit the night before to yourself and your exercise. Reassure yourself that it's good for you. It's not just good for you, it's good for your family, it's good for your friends, it's good for your career. Think about the benefits. 

The Australian Government resource Head to Health has digital mental health and wellbeing resources, for yourself or for someone you care about – visit headtohealth.gov.au.

 Anyone who is experiencing a mental health emergency (themselves or others) should call Mental Health Line 1800 011 511, Lifeline 13 11 14 or call 000.

Monica McInnes