Using innovation to promote physical activity

  • School children wearing roller skates on a tennis court
    Wheel Mates
  • School children wearing roller skates on a tennis court
    Wheel Mates
  • No Lights No Lycra events Ballarat and Geelong
Mistralle Brouillard, Elizabeth Calleja and Jarrod Leggett
National Heart Foundation of Australia

Engaging in regular physical activity provides many benefits – it helps prevent or manage chronic diseases like coronary heart disease, all the while supporting mental health and opportunities for social connection. However, many Australians are not reaping these benefits, with more than half of adults, and around 75% of children, not meeting the physical activity recommendations of Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. This is of particular concern in rural and remote areas, where the burden of chronic disease increases with the increase in level of remoteness. To effectively tackle this, preventive approaches must be place-based, evidence-informed, and led by individuals who understand their community’s needs.  

To support community connection to physical activity, the National Heart Foundation of Australia leads the Active Australia Innovation Challenge (AAIC), a grant program to fund innovative projects that encourage people to increase activity in their daily lives. The AAIC was established in 2018 and is supported by the Australian Government Department of Health. The AAIC aims to support groups at increased risk of chronic disease including people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage; people living in remote, rural, and regional locations; people living with a disability; people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The annual challenge is open to community groups, universities, and schools to apply for grant funding. The award funds can be used to kick-start a new project, or to support one that is part of a larger project.  

The AAIC also seeks to support initiatives that think outside the box – bringing innovation into the picture. The range of activities has been impressive, with 25 different types of physical activity represented between 2018 and 2021 including cycling, school climbing walls, and youth roller skating - Wheel Mates.

The No Lights No Lycra Regional Tour is one example of how innovation was used to take an activity that worked well in urban settings and adapt it to the needs of regional areas. No Lights No Lycra started when a group of friends got together in Melbourne to dance – in the dark, without judgment, and completely sober. With the AAIC funding support, this dancing-in-the-dark sensation hit the road to showcase the initiative to rural areas and empower communities to run their own sessions. The tour offered an accessible activity to people of all ages and was well received – over 300 dancers attended ten sessions. The tour also gained significant interest from potential Ambassadors (11 people in five towns) to continue the events into the future in their town. 

During the 2018 to 2021 grant period, a total of 44 projects were funded, supporting over 6,000 people across Australia to be more physically active. Over a third of projects were delivered in rural areas. At the time of the AAIC’s 2022 program evaluation, 67% of the projects funded continued to operate, and 29% of participants had collectively secured a total of $1.2 million in additional sponsorship from other funders.  

In the next round of funding, the Heart Foundation aims to promote even greater representation among regional, rural, and remote areas, where challenges including large distances to exercise facilities and lack of affordability can create limitations in the types of exercise people can take part in. The AAIC has successfully supported projects in these communities that help get people moving in accessible ways.  

Have an innovative idea that could promote physical activity in your community? In 2024, the AAIC will be awarding winners with grants of up to $50,000. Applications are now open and close on 1 March 2024. Visit the Active Australia Innovation Challenge website to apply.

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