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Oct 20

‘Meeting women where they’re at’: How Daughters of the West is breaking down exercise barriers – ABC News

It's a chilly Tuesday night in West Footscray, Melbourne,where 30 women are gathered at a community centre, hearing from a proud Yorta Yorta woman from the Koorie Heritage Trust about Aboriginal culture and history.

The women listen attentively and ask thoughtful questions.

Once the session is over, they break out into three groups.

Each group does a different type of exercise.

Some women take on a high intensity circuit, while others do low impact chair exercises.

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The Daughters of the West program run by the Western Bulldogs Community Foundation in partnership with local government and community health services is breaking down the barriers that stop women from exercising.

The pilot program ran in 2017 following the success of Sons of the West, which was initiated by the Foundation in 2014 to encourage men to take care of their physical and mental health.

Daughters of the West has grown and adapted to changing circumstances since that pilot, including two completely online programs in 2020 and 2021 when Melbourne was in lockdown.

Alyce Vella is Community Health and Wellbeing Manager at the Western Bulldogs Community Foundation and is responsible for the respective initiatives.

She says the programs are gender sensitive, recognising that some issues of health and wellbeing such as family violence, cancer and alcohol consumption require different approaches.

But the model remains the same: 10weekly sessions, consisting of one hour each of education and exercise.

The exercise sessions are facilitated by trainers and sport science students from Victoria University, while psychologists are available to chat one-on-one with participants.

"There was a real need to develop something accessible and suitable for communities in the west," Alyce said.

"Communities in the western suburbs of Melbourne experience greater health inequities compared to other parts of the state.

"This relates to a range of poor health outcomes such as obesity, low intake of fruit and vegetables, and low physical activity rates."

This year, the Foundation is running programs across 13 different sites in Melbourne's westand regional Victoria, which will attract between 500 and 800 participants across all locations.

Tonight's location is home to simultaneous sessions in English and Vietnamese.

The education components are delivered first, before the groups come together to exercise.

This breaks down the language barrier to those participating and provides the women with the opportunity to make new friends.

Alyce is proud of the "strength and great relationships that bi-cultural workers form with their communities" that underpin the success of the program.

Quyen participated in the pilot five years ago, after a friend suggested it.

In 2020, she began to facilitate the Vietnamese women's program, first online and now face-to-face for the first time this year.

"Before I started the program, honestly I never did exercise," Quyen said.

"I'm busy with my family, I feel like I have to cook, clean and do everything for everybody else before me. I don't have any time for myself."

"Now I'm lucky enough to introduce the program to Vietnamese women.

"They're like me family first.

"I feel a really close connection with these ladies.

"We created a walking group so each week we'd walk around the oval and chat."

One participant in her 30s, Suzie, mentioned that she had previously played local football, and continues to train at her old club.

"I feel part of a community, it's hard to leave once you're part of it," she said.

"If I'm going to do exercise it's probably going to be in a group. I rarely have motivation to go on my own."

Like community sport, Daughters of the West is held at the same time each week.

It's something for participants to put in the diary, and an opportunity not only to exercise but to spend time with other women they know, making it more meaningful.

The womenin West Footscray havefound a safe and supportive environment to learn and exercise.

And they were unanimous in their love for a recent Bollywood dancing session.

"You couldn't wipe the smile off my face," Suzie said.

"I'd never done that before,it was a new experience for me."

Julie, whose daughter put her onto the program, takes her dogs for walks and previously attended Pilates classes but stopped when the pandemic hit.

She says that she's "not a gym person".

"But I find this environment is really welcoming and comfortable."

Many women face additional barriers that make exercising difficult.

The recent harmful debates around trans women's participation in sport has left trans, gender diverse and non-binary people feeling excluded and unsure about the response they will receive when approaching their local gym or sporting club.

Meanwhile, some women with disabilities face physical accessibility issues as well as tiring stigma and discrimination.

For others, a lack of care options makes visiting the gym near-impossible.

In June, Fitness and Lifestyle Group, whose portfolio includes Fitness First and Goodlife gyms, announced they would close their childminding facilities at 89 gyms across Australia.

They cited a "drastic reduction" in use of the services since the pandemic began, making the service financially "unsustainable".

Over two months since the closure, the gyms' Facebook pages continue to be subject to comments from disappointed patrons.

It's illustrative of how essential childminding facilities can be in empowering women to take care of themselves.

It's something that is front of mind for the Western Bulldogs Community Foundation.

"Working with councils and community health services that may have childcare on site is something we emphasise with our partners, to ensure women have those options," Alyce said.

"We have some sites that run during the day but delivering the program after hours is an enabler as well. Inclusivity is a big focus."

That emphasis on inclusivity is why Daughters of the West has continued to offer an online option this year, even as face-to-face sessions returned.

The team has found that participants use it to catch up on sessions they miss or join in if they are unwell or isolating.

For some however, it is still the only option they are comfortable with.

"There is still a bit of COVID hesitancy and social anxiety," Alyce said.

"Anecdotally, people are saying 'I'm still a bit hesitant.'

"It's about meeting people where they're at and building their confidence."

ABC Sport is partnering withSiren Sportto elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Danielle Croci is a policy officer and freelance writer and podcaster specialising in women's sport.

'Meeting women where they're at': How Daughters of the West is breaking down exercise barriers - ABC News

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