Fitness connects a community and saves lives

Community stories: 19 April 2018

The Toolangi community in Victoria was severely impacted by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Lives were lost and local infrastructure, houses and services were affected. The event touched everyone in the local community in one way or another.

Toolangi has an ageing population, as it is a lovely quiet place to retire; however the location is also quite isolated. The older demographic was highlighted as needing specific support after the fires, and the Fit For Free program was developed and implemented by Toolangi Castella District Community House Inc (TCDCH).

Group fitness and wellbeing to get the conversation started

Initially intended as an interim measure to help local residents recover from the bushfires, the Fit For Free program was an initiative that was developed by locals, for locals. It is now an integral community fitness and wellbeing program, and has been running for eight years.

For TCDCH the challenge was to develop a program that would help local residents to rebuild and regroup, but in a way that would contribute towards the long-term community resilience without causing people to feel like victims or charity cases.

The Fit For Free program now has 37 participants who attend regularly, and each person undertook a fitness and health assessment prior to commencing the program. At the beginning, several participants were overweight or obese, had health problems, and / or suffered from depression or low self-esteem. Being aware of these challenges, the program incorporated social interaction opportunities, including a group walk at the beginning of each class.

Finding ongoing support is vital

TCDCH used local networks, such as the local newsletter, community groups and businesses to spread the word about the program. Finding a local fitness trainer to run to the sessions has ensured longevity.

Fit for Free has been funded by numerous grants since starting eight years ago, and supported by FRRR for four years now through the Grants for Resilience & Wellness (GR&W) program, funded by the Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund.

The program conducts annual surveys, which is a great way to show funders the results that the program is achieving and helps to ask for more funding. But the participants openly give feedback during the group walk and morning tea, and the program has been adapted over the years in response to this feedback.

Understanding the impact of Fit for Free

In July 2014, FRRR funded an evaluation of the impact of this long-term program. The impacts were truly remarkable!

During the focus groups, participants talked about the importance of getting out of the house and attending the classes and the joy they felt in having made so many new friendships and being much more active in the community.

Some other highlights from the review:

  • Two participants are no longer taking medication for diabetes.
  • Three participants are no longer on anti-depressant medication.
  • Six participants have lost weight, with one person losing a massive 22 kilos.
  • Two participants said they now had a “sense of belonging”.
  • One participant said that the program had “saved my life”.
  • Numerous participants have become involved in the community garden, men’s shed, TCDCH.
  • One participant stated that she had overcome her fear of “windy days” (post bushfires).

Having a common goal that was not associated with the fires meant that they were able to focus on something positive, in this case physical fitness, and friendships and a supportive group environment was formed.

The community as a whole has gained from this program, with improved support for local activities and services, as well as a marked increase by participants in volunteering and involvement in community groups. This is a strong indicator of increased connectedness and, therefore, resilience.