NAIDOC Week 2024 – Aboriginal Health and Physical Activity

This article was contributed by Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Nicholle Cooke-Hayes. Nicholle works in Central Australia within the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and in Alice Springs, offering exercise physiology and exercise science services to rural, remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

NAIDOC Week 2024 – Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud

NAIDOC Week 2024 celebrates and recognises the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and it is an opportunity for all Australians to learn about and support their local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

This NAIDOC Week, we’re raising awareness of the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the role that physical activity plays in this, with the help of Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP), Nicholle Cooke-Hayes.


In the Northern Territory alone (where AEP Nicholle lives and works), there are approximately 60,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, 34,000 of which live within 80 remote or very remote communities.

It is estimated that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived in Australia for the last 60,000 years. They are estimated to be the oldest living continuing culture in the world, full of rich history and strong practices where they lived long, healthy and physically active lives. In the last 236 years, since colonisation in 1788, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been faced with continuous adversity that has been detrimental to their overall health and wellbeing across all aspects of life.

A direct impact of the constraints imposed by colonisation is an increased level of physical inactivity. This can be seen within dispossession and limitations placed on traditional practices such as seasonal living and sanctions placed on hunting for traditional bush tucker. This transition from active traditional living to sedentary modern lifestyles, has contributed to health issues such as obesity and chronic health diseases among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Astoundingly, in 2024 in all indicators, such as health status, disease profiles, quality of life and social and emotional wellbeing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples reported poorer health outcomes than the non-Aboriginal population in the Northern Territory. Factors such as intergenerational trauma, forced dislocation and dispossession, remoteness and social determinants of health have contributed to these health outcomes for First Nations people.

Looking at health specifically, there are higher rates and early onset of chronic disease among Aboriginal people, particularly cardiovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, respiratory conditions, kidney disease and cancer. The flow on effect of this is that 80% of the mortality gap between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians aged 35-74 years is due to chronic diseases.


The importance of exercise physiology services in remote Aboriginal Australia is evident with physical inactivity being an important risk factor associated with preventable chronic diseases.

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading modifiable risk factor that contributes to the loss of healthy life for Aboriginal people, with its effect manifested through a range of diseases, most notably coronary heart disease and diabetes (44% and 36% of the burden attributed to physical inactivity respectively).

Not only is regular exercise imperative for preventing, treating and managing diseases, it also contributes to overall quality of life through improved mental and social wellbeing, in particular by reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

To combat these statistics above, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress is a strong political advocate of closing the gap on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health, in which exercise physiologists have a primary role.

Within AEP Nicholle’s work at Congress, she provides exercise physiology services primarily to two remote Aboriginal Communities; Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and Utju (Areyonga).

Her main approaches include lifestyle intervention and behaviour change initiatives through health and physical activity education, one-on-one AEP consults, women’s health and exercise groups, healthy ageing exercise group, alternate learning programs, and education about healthy tucker and cook-ups.


While these AEP-led services and groups have been successful and welcomed by community members, regular ongoing services like this are a rarity in remote communities due to staffing shortages, prescriptive funding streams and a lack of exercise physiology positions and services available in the Northern Territory.

Increasing awareness, referrals and access to AEPs is something Nicholle is continually advocating for and extremely passionate about improving, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in rural and remote settings.

In addition to not having access to AEPs, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in remote communities, making long-lasting lifestyle changes is met with extreme challenges and barriers that other Australians would not have to consider when it comes to implementing lifestyle management through physical activity and healthy eating.

Some of which include no access to a gym or appropriate exercise facilities, limited appropriate activities and groups for people to participate in across the lifespan, extreme weather conditions, food insecurity and limited access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, and living in very remote locations with travel limitations.


Given the above, it is apparent how integral it is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in rural and remote Australia have access to AEP services and exercise facilities to empower people with the confidence, support and resources to increase physical activity levels, improve their health and wellbeing and make real headway towards Closing the Gap.

Get involved this NAIDOC Week by attending a local event, downloading their free resources, helping spread the NAIDOC message and supporting your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Find out more. 


Written by Nicholle Cooke-Hayes, AEP, AES, Grad Cert Counselling, EFT Practitioner. 

Nicholle is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist working in Central Australia within the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and her business Movement Matters Therapy (MMT). MMT offers services face to face in Alice Springs, surrounds and online. Follow her Instagram @movement.matters.therapy for more.