Ginny Stevens is determined to improve the physical and mental health of regional Australians, one fitness class at a time.
The 30-year-old from Mangoplah in NSW is the founder of Active Farmers, a not-for-profit organisation that coordinates group exercise classes for farmers and regional families across NSW, Queensland and Tasmania. The aim of the initiative isn’t just to get people moving, but to connect people with each other and their community.
“If someone doesn’t turn up to training, there’s someone to notice,” Ginny explains.
The idea for the program came to Ginny in 2015.
“I was out for a run and I thought, ‘why don’t I combine my interest in health and fitness with my interest in supporting farmers in regional communities?’ I began locally, teaching an exercise class around my full time job.”
Nearly three years later, there are now Active Farmers groups in 22 towns and counting, including Dunedoo, Jugiong and Lockhart in NSW.
Having grown up on a farm in Tasmania, completed an agricultural science degree, and worked as a jillaroo in the Northern Territory, Ginny says she can understand why farmers sometimes struggle to keep on top of their physical and mental health.
“They’re often running their operations with as little labour as possible to cut down on costs. They’re often single or two person operators, and the wife may have a career.
“Mix that in with land holdings that are getting bigger, communities that are getting smaller, new technologies that mean farmers are less active, commodity price risks, seasonal risks… and there’s a lot of things snowballing to cause poor mental health outside of the major cities.”
The goal of Active Farmers is to provide an antidote to some of the stress.
“It’s sort of replacing social tennis, because they don’t really do that anymore. We’re not training for the Olympics! The aim is just to exercise, have fun, get off the farm, feel better and drive people to think – oh, and that mean’s my mental health’s improved.”
Ginny explains that while communities are keen for mental health support, she’s had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get Active Farmers up and running. Finding fitness trainers in regional areas is “the biggest challenge of the whole program and they are the key to its success”. The nature of agriculture means group attendance can fluctuate. Convincing men to join can also be hard.
“It’s just physically getting off the farm that’s the problem. They tell me ‘I’m too busy’. And some have never been into fitness in that way – they may have played footy and that’s it, so it’s a bit foreign to them.
“I usually tell them one to two hours per week for yourself is not going to cause your business to fail.”
In the future, Ginny hopes to be able to offer farming communities workshops on topics like nutrition, managing finances and mindfulness, something she’s trialled to early interest. One of the keys to her future success, she believes, is her commitment to taking help to where people need it.
“You need to bring it out to smaller communities. People really value it when someone brings a service to them. There may only be 10 or 15 people who attend a workshop, but that doesn’t matter. Those 10 people count.”