Physical fitness in communities

Physical fitness in communities

Physical activity and movement have been integral to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of life for thousands of years, but this has been severely impacted on by colonisation through changes to lifestyle, land ownership, work options, travel, and diet.

Physical fitness in communities

Physical activity and movement have been integral to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of life for thousands of years, but this has been severely impacted on by colonisation through changes to lifestyle, land ownership, work options, travel, and diet.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived a very active outdoor lifestyle prior to colonisation, in the way they managed the landscape, travelled, and obtained food. Transport options were walking, running, swimming, or by boat/canoe. Cultural activities included dance, and a lot of traditional games. Traditional food production and gathering methods involved a combination of hunting, digging, fishing, and ‘fire-stick farming’. This was an important method of land management in mainland Australia that used fire to boost productivity of ecosystems and reduce the risk of large bushfires. It involved hours of walking, deliberately lighting small fires in targeted areas, watching to make sure the right areas were burned or preserved, and tracking animal movements.


Food knowledge in Australia built up through a process of experimentation from the first peoples more than 60,000 years ago, to understand what was edible and how to maximise food production1. One common method was through the use of “fire-stick farming” to burn patches of land regularly with low-intensity fires, retaining ‘mosaics’ of unburnt land as refuges for plants and animals to ensure diversity and productivity were maximised2. This method of living required a high degree of landscape-scale management planning, taking place across large areas, meaning that in certain areas people regularly moved from place to place, both to follow the most productive areas in cycles, and to prevent depleting any one area. This meant a great of walking, carrying and physical labour.

Harvesting of grains was done by hand and with some use of tools, and then hand-ground using grinding stones3. Tubers e.g. yams (like a sweet potato) as well as vegetables and fruits were gathered as a daily activity. The freshness and variety of bush foods was nutritious and healthy, unprocessed, and the labour involved in gathering, processing and cooking kept people fit and active. In addition, land management was a highly collaborative community effort. Aboriginal farming is based on the needs of the community, as opposed to the needs of individuals or businesses. Aboriginal farming was practiced collaboratively, including between clans, to maintain balance and abundance and ensure everyone had enough4.

Everything changed with the arrival of European colonisers. Many Aboriginal people were forced off their traditional lands, and forced into missions and reserves, meaning people could no longer rely on access to their traditional lands for bush foods or continue ‘fire-stick farming’ in the traditional way. This had the effect of forced reliance on European foods like wheat, sugar and tea. This sudden decline in quality and variety in diet, combined with living a more sedentary lifestyle, as well as introduced diseases, contributed to poor health outcomes at the time, some of which persist today5. These include an increased risk for several chronic diseases, e.g. heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, being overweight, as well as reducing overall mental health and wellbeing.

In the Torres Strait there was and remains today a heavy reliance on fishing for food, while today modern tools are incorporated into fishing activities such as motor boats, modern spearfishing, and other fishing equipment. Gardens were a focus to provide fruit and vegetables, similar to the way Papua New Guineans focus on garden plots6.

Lifestyle and sport

Today physical activity is more closely linked to sport and culture, rather than food and living off the land, but remains hugely important to improve health outcomes and maintain connection to culture and community. Sport is necessary for communities as never before. Research has found that participation in sport can help to reduce violence, keeps young people out of serious trouble and enriches the lives of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people7. This can be especially important for youth who are faced with disadvantage or social issues in their communities, which is not uncommon due to the health challenges that exist on top of a history of dispossession and ongoing discrimination.

There is a big focus on teamwork and community in many traditional games, both children’s games such as those documented in the Yulunga resource8, and adult sports and games. Marngrook is an example of a traditional football game played by both children and adults, including men and women on the same team, using a possum skin ball. The game also is reported to have had totemic sides, increasing the cultural significance of belonging to a team. This is somewhat similar to a modern team mascot, although totems are of great personal significance and come with important cultural obligations, as totem animals are considered literally brothers and sisters, and should be treated with respect. Today many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are active in AFL and Rugby, and there are many talented and dedicated Indigenous football players that are incredible role models for Indigenous youth.

Dance has also remained an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, with many groups performing traditional dance and traditional fire-starting at cultural events all around Australia.

Prominent contemporary dance group Bangarra Dance Theatre, formed in 1989, has been highly successful, touring Australia’s capital cities, regional areas and internationally. The company creates performances that combine contemporary and traditional forms of dance from both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and European traditions9. Bangarra ‘uphold the integrity of cultural storytelling’ and aim to inspire the next generation, providing education programs and workshops around the country.

Classroom activity - Health and Physical Education Years 9 and 10

Students will learn about the historical importance of physical activity to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and design fire-themed activities to re-introduce traditional games and movement to communities, focusing on how these now form a connection to culture.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum :

  • Examine the role physical activity, outdoor recreation and sport play in the lives of Australians and investigate how this has changed over time (ACPMP104)
  • Plan and evaluate new and creative interventions that promote their own and others’ connection to community and natural and built environments (ACPPS097)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 9 and 10 in Health and Physical Education:

  • propose and evaluate interventions to improve fitness and physical activity levels in their communities
  • examine the role physical activity has played historically in defining cultures and cultural identities

Activity 1 – Sport and culture, past and present

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: notebook, pen, computers

  • Investigate the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incorporated physical activity into daily life prior to colonisation. Either as a class or individually, make a list or a mind-map of activities. Include hunting and everyday living activities, and sport or cultural activities.
  • Discuss the following inquiry-based questions as a class:
    • How did each of these activities contribute to people’s identity and connection with community?
    • How was food interrelated to other aspects of life/culture? How are things different and/or the same in contemporary society?
    • In what ways is modern life less healthy than a traditional one? Is it more healthy in some ways?
    • How is physical activity important in people’s mental health and well-being?
    • What activities do people in your community today participate in for fitness, identity and connection with community? (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) Where do these traditions originate from? What does this add to their community or cultural value?

Activity 2 – Totem Teams

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson plus homework if required

Required resources: notebook, pen, computers, ball (if required)

  • As a class, read one of the Aboriginal fire stories available at:
  • Watch Rekindling Youth Program (Bangarra) video:
  • Evaluate:
    • How will this improve fitness and physical activity levels?
    • What makes the Bangarra Rekindling program engaging for young people?
    • What elements are important for making people feel they belong to a team?
    • What is the connection between community and the environment?
  • In small groups, develop an activity or game that involves teams, with each team selecting an animal mascot or totem. The game can centre around the theme of fire, and movement/physical activity, e.g. a game to play around a campfire, a dance or storytelling performance about fire, or a team game involving a ball. The game should have these elements:
    • Teamwork
    • Skill and/or endurance
  • Discuss the following inquiry-based learning questions as a class:
    • What role teamwork plays in culture and community, particularly in overcoming challenges
    • What role does a mascot or totem have in forming team identity?
    • The role community plays in supporting others through challenges
    • Connection between the environment and health – how does getting outside and being active support good health?


1 Super Nomads – 50,000 to 30,000 years ago. (2013) First Footprints. Retrieved from:

2 Pascoe, B. (2014) Dark Emu. Magabala Books. P.

3 Pascoe, B. (2014) op. cit. P.

4 Bangarra Dance Theatre (2018) Dark Emu Study Guide. Page 7. Retrieved from:

5 Aboriginal Health – barriers to physical activity. (2018) Retrieved from:

6 The Biggest Estate – 9,000 years ago to 1788 (2013) First Footprints. Retrieved from:

7 Aboriginal Health – barriers to physical activity. (2018) op. cit.

8 Yulunga Traditional Indigenous Games (n.d.) Retrieved from:

9 Bangarra: Our Company (n.d.) Retrieved from:

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.