Indigenous perspectives on active living in remote Australia: a qualitative exploration of the socio-cultural link between health, the environment and economics

Sharon Thompson, Richard Chenhall, Julie Brimblecombe

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Background: The burden of chronic disease in Indigenous Australia is more than double that of non-Indigenous populations and even higher in remote Northern Territory (NT) communities. Sufficient levels of physical activity are known to reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve the health of those already suffering from chronic disease. It has been identified that effective promotion of physical activity in Indigenous settings requires the diverse cultural perspectives and participation of Indigenous people. However, Indigenous concepts of physical activity are not represented in the public health literature and examples of Indigenous involvement in physical activity promotion are scarce. This study aimed to explore and describe local perspectives, experiences and meanings of physical activity in two remote NT Indigenous communities. 

Qualitative research methods guided by ethnographic and participatory action research principles were used. Semi-structured interviews conducted with 23 purposively selected community members were the main source of data, augmented by five commissioned paintings by community-based artists and observations recorded in a journal by the first author. 

The findings reveal that in this cultural context the meaning of physical activity is embedded in socially significant and economically necessary physical engagement with the environment. Participants described physical activities associated with Indigenous natural and cultural resource management, customary spaces, seasonal timing and traditional education as creating and protecting health. These activities were viewed not only as culturally appropriate physical activities that contribute to health but as legitimate, physically active forms of social organisation, education and employment that help to build and maintain relationships, wealth, resources and the environment. 

This different construction of physical activity in remote Indigenous communities highlights the importance of involving Indigenous people in the development and implementation of physical activity promotion. Physical activities associated with traditional Indigenous cultural practices and being active ‘on country’ need to be viewed as legitimate health promotion activities. Exploring further ways to enable Indigenous people in remote NT to be involved in creating viable active livelihoods on ‘traditional country’ needs to be considered as imperative to health improvement.
Original languageEnglish
Article number473
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalBMC Public Health
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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