While there were no camera crews or gruelling fitness coaches constantly scrutinising their every move, participants in Langford Aboriginal Association’s weight loss competition held their own against those in Channel 10’s intense reality TV show The Biggest Loser.
Participants in the LAA’s Beat it! Live Longer program adopted regular exercise, clean eating and health checks in their quest for better health.
Most participants were long-term regulars at LAA who also participated in the weekly Moorditj Yoka Women’s Group. Their comfort and ease with each other created an inspiring and supportive environment for them to hit their targets.
Obesity is at epidemic proportions in Australia, and the Aboriginal community is particularly at risk, with 57 per cent of all Indigenous Australians either overweight or obese.
The problem contributes to other health issues such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type II diabetes – conditions that are debilitating and which significantly lower the life expectancy of Aboriginal people.
Lennett Sandy is no stranger to the difficulties that come with obesity. With the help of an adjustable gastric band she was able to lose an impressive 70 kilograms. But when the weight began to sneak back on, Sandy decided to act.
“The doctor said to me, ‘You know, you really need to have a look at where you want to be. Do you want to go back where you were or be where you are now?’,” Sandy said.
“And I think with him saying that and also with what was going on here at Langford it really helped me get back on track.”
Between the start of the Beat it! Live Longer program, and when InkWire spoke to her in early June, Sandy had lost another 7 kilograms.
“The big motivation is I didn’t want to be dead by 52,” she said.
“My mother died at 52, my grandmother died at 52, my grandfather died at 52. My aunty died at 45. All health related to diabetes, heart attacks, and I don’t want to be in that condition.
“It’s really sad because in my immediate family I’m the eldest person alive, and at 53 that’s young to be the eldest matriarch in your family. It’s always on your mind that you don’t want to be where you were or where your family are now, in the cemetery.
“I’m happy to get back in it and I’m losing it in a healthy way and it’s slowly coming off and that’s the way to do it.”
But weight loss is not easy.
For Merinda Hansen, lack of drive limited her success in the program.
“I get motivated and then I get unmotivated,” she said.
“I’ve only been to a couple of the exercise things. I have been sick with the flu, my asthma’s really bad, so that put me off for weeks. And then my back has been really bad; it’s only just starting to come good. But, it’s no excuse really.
“I think when you become overweight, you get into that lazy [mind-set]. It is hard to motivate you[rself]. And yet I hate being overweight. I can’t stand it. So you would think I would be more trying to do something.”
Hansen said alarms bells started ringing when she noticed an increase in the weight of her grandchildren.
“We went to the shop tonight and I thought, ‘Right, we’re going to prepare the meals and start eating really healthy’,” she said.
“We bought rock melon, I let [my grandchild] choose the fruit and then I let her have a chocolate and said, ‘That’s the only bad thing you’re going to eat this week’. And so everything else is going to be healthy. She was quite pleased with that.”
Hansen said she was going to use the skills she learned throughout the program to encourage a healthy life for her grandkids.
“They’re getting chubby because I’m not cooking healthy meals. So they’ve given us all the recipes. I need to put them in a file and just be healthy – change the way,” she said.
Acting health program coordinator Daniella Joyce said a holistic approach had been crucial to improving the health of the Langford women.
“The critical component of the program is the diet and exercise, but we’ve also got the grief and loss program which solely focuses on mental health, as well as the education component,” Joyce said.
“Incorporating that mental and emotional and spiritual side of things is really helping them on the exercise and nutrition side.”
Joyce said the education component was also having a positive impact on the wider community.
“Something I’ve found really paramount with the Aboriginal community is that they’re very generous with their knowledge and if you ask a question they will actually explain things in a really adaptable way,” she said.
“They’re not only cooking healthier meals at home but they’re also demonstrating their knowledge to their children or their partners, or work friends or sisters-in-law.”
Program participant Angela Ryder has been coming to the Langford Aboriginal Association since it opened its doors in 2000.
The association was formed through collaboration between several families, including Ryder’s, who recognised a gap in services for Aboriginal people around Langford, in Perth’s eastern suburbs.
“It has been about giving back to community. I thought, ‘Oh well I’ve got a job, I’m paying off my house, and I’m in a better position than a lot of other community members’ so I thought I’d be involved and just do something for community,” Ryder said.
Ryder said the organisation’s community-minded approach had been vital to the LAA’s success.
“It probably has saved me many times,” she said, laughing.
“We just meet and do all kinds of different things. We love coming here and just sitting and doing stuff. Having an outlet for different things, it’s been a saving grace, I reckon.”