A healthy disruption: the new game plan for physical activity
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Visit VicHealth.vic.gov.au

A healthy disruption: the new game plan for physical activity

The future of sport in Australia is all about breaking down the barriers to participation by being more social, more flexible, and more responsive to community needs.


The idea of ‘building a more active Australia’ is one of the priorities of Sport 2030, the national sports plan released by Sport Australia in late 2018. It came alongside the more conventional goal of achieving sporting excellence through international sporting success, and a newly articulated commitment to safeguarding the sports sector against corruption.

For many, however, the breakthrough lay in the report’s acknowledgement that physical activity was a significant contributor to population health, and that broadening ‘sport policy’ to include financial and structural support for physical activity could boost the health and wellbeing of the community, while potentially ameliorating the social and economic costs of a range of chronic diseases linked to inactivity and obesity.


A new role for sport

Sport 2030 revealed that two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese; that 81 per cent of children don’t do the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise; and that nearly 70 per cent of adults have a sedentary lifestyle. It also referenced numerous sources of evidence linking physical inactivity to diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, stroke and some cancers including breast, bowel and uterine cancer. Disturbingly, this has the greatest impact among people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage, who have some of the lowest levels of physical activity across the population.

Dean Brostek is co-founder and partner of The Kinetica Group, a strategic agency that works with sports organisations to identify, develop and sustain their opportunities for growth. He believes there is scope for the sports sector to adapt to this environment and play a leading role in raising activity levels across the community.

‘Sport has a massive role to play in helping address the health challenges faced by society,’ says Brostek. ‘Having said that, it’s not going to be easy, because we have to encourage behavioural change amongst large populations, and that’s incredibly complex.’

Understanding the barriers

hose behaviours, of course, are heavily influenced by external factors. Most people understand the benefits of a healthy diet, whether or not they follow one. The same can be said of physical activity. VicHealth’s 2015 work on Physical Activity Across Life Stages confirmed that Victorians understood the health benefits of keeping active, but that knowledge was often ‘not compelling enough’ to get them moving.

Indeed, the barriers to greater participation are many and are often deeply set in cultural and environmental contexts that are almost impossible for individuals to address.

Work and family commitments, compounded by traffic congestion and onerous commutes, may leave little time for physical activity.

Limited access to spaces where physical activity can take place, most keenly felt by communities in sprawling fringe suburbs and densely populated urban areas, hinders the individual’s ability to get out and get moving.

Money can be a factor, too, where membership fees and equipment costs can’t be managed in the household budget.

And then there are the barriers that most keenly affect women and girls whose rate of participation in sport sits at just 11 per cent (men are at 21 per cent). Roundly defined as ‘fear of judgement’ these include specific concerns about appearance, skill level, family responsibilities and personal priorities. This Girl Can—Victoria, launched by VicHealth in 2018, has been successful in addressing some of the social and systemic inequalities that drive that fear of judgment. In the first twelve months of the initiative, more than $2million in funding was provided to 13 different sports organisations and clubs to help them champion and support women’s participation.


Infographic: Work and family commitments, compounded by traffic congestion and onerous commutes, may leave little time for physical activity 


More social, less competitive

Many barriers to participation cannot be readily addressed by traditional sporting codes working within the rigid structures of club facilities, membership models and competition schedules. Where they are being addressed is in the emergence of activities that offer more social, less competitive and sometimes less physically intense versions of those familiar games.

At the grassroots level, these ‘social sport’ initiatives are spawned when a bunch of friends decides to meet regularly for a session of kick-to-kick at the local footy field. At the other end of the spectrum, they are professionally packaged and managed by mainstream sporting bodies.

‘Sport can take on that role of being the glue that sits between the friendship group, to facilitate that catch up,’ says Brostek, adding that the challenge is to provide operational support without undermining the social authenticity of the event.

One example is AFL 9s, a program managed by the AFL that keeps the essence of football but makes it less physically demanding. There’s no tackling or bumping, the ball is lighter and the ground smaller. Fun, enjoyment and safety are prioritised.

WOman playing rock up netball

VicHealth has had a major role in supporting sporting bodies to develop social sport programs.

‘These fun, flexible versions of familiar games are a key opportunity to engage some of those groups who we know are less active than they could be, particularly girls and women, and also teenagers,’ says Mel Chisholm, Manager, Physical Activity, Sport and Healthy Eating at VicHealth.

Most high profile, perhaps, is Rock Up Netball, an initiative that had early funding from VicHealth and that affords past, current and new players the opportunity to get involved at the level that suits them best: for relaxed and friendly skills-training sessions, for regular social games, or to be part of one-off round-robin competition days.  

Others include Bowling with Babies which invites pregnant women and new parents to come together, roll a few bowls and get a bit of exercise while developing a support network; and Swell Mamas, that pairs up surfing mums so that one can hit the waves while the other cares for the children. There’s also a social, non-competitive version of lacrosse being rolled out across Victorian universities; and Sail Pass, that allows sailing clubs to provide non-members with flexible access to their facilities at a low cost.

Chisholm notes that VicHealth is also working with Regional Sports Assemblies across the state to establish social sports programs in regional clubs.

‘Regional Sports Assemblies will be developing locally relevant strategies informed by community consultation, local insights and the identification of local gaps and opportunities,’ she says.

Importantly, many of those activities offer short-term commitments (university lacrosse, for example, has a six-week run), or pay-as-you-play arrangements (as for Rock Up Netball). Embracing this sort of flexibility will be one of the key adaptations for traditional sporting codes, according to Brostek.

‘The membership model is already being disrupted because it doesn’t meet the needs of a large proportion of consumers,’ he says.


Flexibility and sustainability

Brostek also observes that the private sector, innately geared to responding to market shifts, has led the way with looser models of commitment for would-be participants hampered by budgetary constraints and unpredictable work and family responsibilities.

‘The private sector is really good at figuring out a way to engage with customers that meets their needs with as few obstacles as possible,’ he says. ‘When you used to join a gym, it used to be like signing your life away – “I’m never going to be able to cancel it” – and that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s about making your product as accessible as possible, removing friction.’

Indeed, Brostek believes that the private sector will have an increasingly important role, not only in leading innovations in the sports sector, but in supporting the public health sector to deliver on those goals of increased participation. He points to the long-term success of indoor centres for cricket and netball, businesses that deliver benefits to players without any direct involvement from the relevant governing body.

Profit is, of course, a significant motivator for these commercial enterprises which raises questions about how government might incentivise those legacy bodies in the future.

‘They’re anchored to the traditional membership model because, for the vast majority of them, that’s what funds their sport. It’s [membership fees] and it’s government funding,’ he says. ‘To get better health outcomes we need to think about how we can better incentivise the system to incorporate [those outcomes] into the way they do business.’


Multi-purpose infrastructure

Brostek also predicts an evolution in the way that infrastructure is planned, used and funded. Changes in where and how Australians are living are among the drivers. A recent City of Melbourne report noted that between 2014 and 2016 there was a 14.5 per cent increase in the number of people within the city, most of them moving into high-rise apartments. Backing that trend, over that same two-year period to 2016, the City’s Census of Land Use and Employment reported that 86.2 per cent of new residences built were apartments.

Across Melbourne’s broader metropolitan area, the state government has announced a plan to create 17 new suburbs on the outer fringes of the city to accommodate a rising population.

Communities are changing shape beyond city limits, too, as VicHealth’s Chisholm observes.

‘Local developments are driving population booms in some regional areas,’ she notes, ‘while in parts of the countryside, numbers are dwindling.’

Brostek says these trends will drive demand for flexible, internal spaces in inner-city areas and multi-sport hubs on the fringes.

‘There’s no reason why traditional and non-traditional sport can’t be occurring at the same place,’ he says. ‘You could have a traditional netball club co-locating with an indoor sport centre that offers beach volleyball or bubble soccer.’

VicHealth is already supporting these hybrids through the Regional Sport Program, encouraging clubs to use their existing facilities to host other recreational activities (like yoga sessions in the local bowls club).

The co-location will necessitate a new brand of cooperation between codes, and between the traditional players and entrepreneurial newcomers. Each, observes Brostek, will have a vested interest in the success and sustainability of groups that might once have been identified as ‘competitors’.

These flexible, multi-purpose facilities will also be fit for the co-location of other sorts of privately owned businesses, too, from cafes and sportswear retailers, to allied health clinics and yoga centres. Indeed, the commitment of public funds to new and upgraded infrastructure may require the kind of profitability that multiple tenants can offer.

‘Infrastructure [will have] to work hard and deliver a return on investment,’ Brostek concedes, ‘whether that’s a commercial return, a social return, a participation return or a health return.’


What works? Let’s see the data... 

Inevitably, technology will have an impact on how both activities and infrastructure are developed and evaluated.

‘It is engagement with technology that is going to allow us to lead more efficient lives. The data that falls out the back of that will allow business and governments in the future to better understand the consumer,’ says Brostek. ‘It better informs decision-makers, businesses, product designers, innovators, and people who are engaged in getting the community together.’

‘There’s a lot more we can do in collecting and translating data and playing it back to both the community and the sports sector,’ agrees Chisholm, adding that VicHealth is already looking at participant data from funded social sports programs to drive future improvements in the sector, and to refine the aims of the next round of funding.

Local councils will be able to use data about their venues to determine how to better roster the use of their facilities. They will have the information they need to make facilities available to the local community when convenient – be it early in the morning or under lights at night – and stand to improve their return on investment at the same time.

‘It’s about spreading demand more evenly across the 24 hours in a day,’ says Brostek.

He adds that opportunities abound for partnerships between the public and private sectors, not least because the private sector is already leading the way with data-led innovation.

‘It’s an opportunity,’ he says. ‘It all comes back to the use of data – private enterprise is good at that because they know more about their customer than sports [organisations] do.’

Loyalty programs and ‘frequent flyer’ systems, for example, offer models that could be taken up by sports organisations in their delivery of services, or access to facilities.

‘The better a sports organisation knows you, the better they will be at serving up something you’re going to want.’

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