Bridging the health gap in socially disadvantaged communities step by step

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Michelle Wilson

National Heart Foundation Walking Manager

Eating a healthy diet, being physically active, and not being too sedentary are known and important actions that contribute to good health and a high quality and long life. However, arguably, the most important factor to whether we lead a healthy long life is where you sit on the social scale, with evidence showing that a person’s health is strongly influenced by their wealth.

In developed countries, individuals experiencing social disadvantage – whether a lower education level, low income, or living in a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhood – are less likely to engage in eating and physical activity behaviours beneficial to good health and are more likely to face inequities in obesity and health outcomes.

In Australia we suffer the effects of major gaps in the prevalence of long-term health conditions, with those who are most socioeconomically disadvantaged twice as likely to have a long-term chronic health condition than those who are most affluent. The most disadvantaged of our society will die, on average, three years earlier than those at the top of the economic ladder.

A common misconception is that people who are disadvantaged are not interested in improving their health and behaviours, however against a backdrop of long, inflexible and low-paid work, endless financial barriers, and neighbourhoods with little to no access to recreational facilities or stores selling healthy food, it is not difficult to see why healthy behaviours are not the highest priority or a realistic choice for many people and their families.

Despite the many barriers to behaviour change faced by those experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage, Heart Foundation Walking demonstrates that it is possible to promote healthy eating and physical activity in disadvantaged groups.

Heart Foundation Walking is the largest free walking program in Australia and represents a universal approach to physical activity promotion, targeting the whole population, including but not limited to disadvantaged participants. It is a community-based program for people from all walks of life and fitness levels, so addresses economic barriers faced by some disadvantaged groups and is led by volunteers living within the local community.

A major success of the program is its engagement of people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage. 56% of participants in the group’s 2012 evaluation had a house-hold income below the Australian median of around $70,000, and nearly a quarter had a household income of less than $25,000.

So what does the program offer that caters so well to disadvantaged groups?

In one survey of more than 3,500 walkers, the main motivating factor for people to continue walking with a group was for social reasons (56%) with health the third highest contributing factor. It is the social interactions combined with physical activity that improve participant’s overall wellbeing and connectedness, and assists with maintaining motivation and creates a more exciting way to increase physical activity and boost health outcomes.

However, it is important to note that the problem of physical inactivity extends to more than half of the Australia adult population who are also not active enough to gain the health and wellbeing benefits of being physical active, such as reduced blood pressure, improved mental health, and maintaining a healthy weight. The simple and free act of walking for 30 minutes a day has the potential to reduce your risk of heart disease – the single biggest killer of Australian men and women – by as much as half.

Heart Foundation Walking has been operating for over 20 years and currently engages over 24,000 participants across its 1,300 walking groups across Australia. To join a walking group or start one of your own in your local area, visit the Heart Foundation Walking website or call 1300 36 27 87.

Heart Foundation Walking offers the support of an online community through its virtual walking groups created for those who either cannot access the walking groups due to distance or other barriers, or simply prefer to walk on their own. The groups also cater for a range of specialty groups with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Heart Foundation Walking is funded nationally by the Medibank Community Fund. It is also proudly funded by the Queensland Government and the ACT Government through ACT Health.

This article was inspired by the debate piece, Traversing myths and mountains: addressing socioeconomic inequities in the promotion of nutrition and physical activity behaviours, published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity.