Physical activity and sport are important in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Traditional activities like hunting and caring for Country are still practised today. These activities require physical exertion and have cultural significance.
Organised sport is important in many regional and remote communities where higher numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live. This can be seen through competitions like the NSW Koori Knockout and the NAIDOC Netball Carnival.
Why is this important?
Many factors influence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in physical activity and sport. These can be classified as facilitators, that enable participation, or barriers, that can make participation more challenging.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show fewer than four in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are doing enough physical activity. This is despite high Indigenous representation in professional sport, for example in Rugby League and AFL.
Doing physical activity has lots of positive health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. There are also social benefits of participating in sport. Our previous research found some evidence of benefits for education, employment, culture, well-being, life skills and crime prevention.
Our new review found 62 different facilitators and 63 different barriers to physical activity and sport. Multiple, complex facilitators and barriers were experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults across Australia.
The review included 27 studies of over 750 total participants aged 18 and over. The studies were published between 2008 and 2020 and took place in urban, rural/regional and remote areas. Most involved interviews, “yarning” or storytelling with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The main physical activity and sport motivators were support from family, friends and program staff, and opportunities to connect with community or culture. The main barriers were a lack of transport and financial constraints. Also, a lack of time due to work, family or cultural commitments.
Feedback through Action Statements
Each facilitator and barrier were examined together to give five clear “Action Statements”. These statements give practical guidance for how future programs can increase and sustain participation. They also give advice to improve current programs and strategies.
Action Statement 1: personal attitudes and life circumstances of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be considered
Many different attitudes, expectations and self-beliefs were identified that could either facilitate or hinder physical activity and sport participation. Physical activity needs to fit in with people’s daily life and personal circumstances. These circumstances include health issues and socioeconomic issues. In urban areas, self-motivation made participation more achievable. But a lack of self‐motivation was a barrier in all geographic locations.
Action Statement 2: promote the holistic health and personal benefits of physical activity and address participation challenges
People described wanting to improve their health as a motivation to do physical activity and sport. However, health or physical issues were barriers to participating. This means coming up with strategies to overcome these barriers are essential. People also described being motivated to participate as they enjoy physical activity. However, injury or illness was also described as a barrier.
Action Statement 3: recognise the importance of family and cultural connections
Providing opportunities for positive connections with family, peers and networks can help people do physical activity and sport. Family commitments, including caring for children, were a common barrier. Racism was also a barrier. But the importance and influence of family, friends, community members and role models were very evident.
Action Statement 4: respect connections to culture and support communities to be supportive, safe, and well-resourced
At the community level, infrastructure and neighbourhood safety are important factors. Community relationships also play an important role that can help or hinder physical activity participation. Connecting to culture and access to culturally safe places and activities is also important.
Action Statement 5: physical activity and sport programs should be sustainably funded and open to participants’ needs and expectations
Programs must accommodate the needs and expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Programs that are cost‐free, have a structure, provide transport and childcare and that are professionally delivered and well‐organised were appealing.
Future decisions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander physical activity and sport need to be made in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is also important to acknowledge the diversity in different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Decisions should be consistent with local views and customs.
Future research could evaluate the impact of future programs, or changes to current programs. This way, we can best understand the benefits of physical activity and sport for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and enhance future opportunities.