With so much of the political and public debate around health focused on national and state/territory politics and policies, it is easy to lose sight of the importance and potential impact of local health champions.
In this latest instalment in our #LookingLocal series, Summer May Finlay profiles the work of someone making a difference for health in her community, a regional city in NSW.
Summer May Finlay writes:
It’s been a tough year. Reports from Royal Commissions into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse and the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory have been handed down. This year brought the marriage equality postal survey, as well as ongoing concerns about the detention of refugees on Manus Island, and Members of Parliament’s dual citizenship issues. And the list could go on!
So, I thought it would be nice to wrap up the year with a look at how one person can make a difference in their community. That community is the one I live: the western side of Lake Macquarie in NSW. That person is Kris Morris.
For the last six weeks, I have been involved in a health and lifestyle challenge run by Morris. It’s actually my second such challenge this year.
I joined the first one knowing nothing about the challenge or Morris. All I knew was I needed something to motivate me to get off my arse, go to the gym and to put down the ice cream.
The second time, I joined the challenge because I had started to fall back into old habits. To make it more interesting, I encouraged one of my brothers to do the challenge too. This time I wasn’t just competing against myself but also my brother!
Morris started the first challenge to help out a housemate who wanted to get fit again, and invited a bunch of mates to join in. Now having run four challenges, Morris has helped over 200 people in my community improve their health.
While Lake Macquarie might be a beautiful place to live (see the photos above and below if you don’t believe me) and a great place to grow up, like every community it has its challenges.
We are almost a third less likely to complete year 12 and are even less likely to go to university than other Australians. And our personal and household income is about one fifth less than other Australians as well. Unemployment is 7.6 percent, which is higher than the national unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.
My area also has one of the highest rates of deaths attributable to high body mass in NSW, with 36.8 deaths per 100 000, compared to North Sydney with 23.1 per 100 000.
These figures demonstrate why efforts to improve health and fitness are so important for my community.
In addition to the challenges, Morris runs boot camps – $10 per person or free for those who can’t afford to pay.
After the first challenge, I realised that Morris didn’t really make any money from the challenges. He has a full-time sales job, a partner and four kids. He runs the challenges on top of his existing commitments, all because he wants to see his community healthy.
So, what do the challenges entail?
“You can’t out train a bad diet” is one of Morris’s favourite sayings, which is why there are no fad diets, no untested, unsubstantiated weight loss pills and no “quick” muscle development machines in this challenge.
The challenge is about developing a healthier sustainable lifestyle, supported by Morris and local businesses.
The challenges are a combination of exercise guides, a body composition scan and nutrition advice. Morris gives everyone exercise guides and meal tips. On top of the boot camps he runs three times a week, the challenge includes free trials with other fitness clubs in the area.
For Morris, it isn’t about people coming to his boot camps but rather them finding out what they enjoy doing. This isn’t about making money.
Now I didn’t put down the ice cream completely – but I have managed to lose three percent of my body fat and gain two kilograms of muscle across the two challenges, which, just quietly, I am stoked about.
For the latest challenge, Morris said he has “seen some really good results. Some people have lost 10 to 12 kilograms”.
The winner of the latest challenge, Elizabeth Ellis, lost 8.2kg of fat and gained 400g of muscle. Mark Sampson came second, and lost 5.6kg and gained 1.1kg in muscle. Ben Corrigan came third and lost 9kg of fat and gained 900g in muscle.
Mark Sampson participated in the challenge with his partner Jenny Hosken. They joined the challenge to improve their lifestyles.
Sampson said that “it was about changing lifestyle habits, trying to eat better, trying to get in the habit of going to the gym more”.
For Hosken, she said she wanted to “learn more about nutrition and what we should be putting in our body. Also, to get back on the fitness bandwagon. Get ready for summer really!”
Jackie and Tahu Edwards have completed two challenges and also go to the boot camps. Tahu, for the latest challenge, was in the top 10 out of 96 participants. He said he got involved because “I was getting a bit out of shape. I’m pretty happy with the results. Kris runs it really well and it’s a bit of fun.”
Jackie said that “people keep going to the boot camps when there is no challenge on because it’s so good for the community”.
So why does he do it? Morris said he runs the boot camps and challenges because “I see what kind of happiness being fit and healthy brings”.
He believes everyone has the right to be fit and healthy: “I call them lifestyle challenges because I believe fitness should be part of your lifestyle.”
His partner Gemma Wilkinson, a doctor, appreciates the community impact of the challenges.
“There are a lot of challenges out there that are about changing for eight weeks or so but Kris’s challenges are different because they are about changing a lifestyle,” she said.
“It’s not just for the six to eight weeks, he wants to change them for life.”
Wilkinson also understands how much effort her partner puts into each and every challenge: “Every day, two months before the challenge he is planning for the challenge.”
Beast Mode, one of the local businesses supporting the challenge, offers discounts to participants for the body scans and also put up a prize for this last challenge. Tracy Marsland, one of the co-owners, said it’s about supporting local events and people.
The secret weapon
In public health we know when it comes to behaviour change, people don’t always lead healthy lifestyles even when they understand why it is important. Many factors influence the decisions we make. People are complex and influenced by emotions, habits, commitments and logic.
We all know that if we really want to lose weight and become healthier, what we need to do is change the way we eat and exercise more. Just because we know what to do, doesn’t mean we actually do it! I know I am guilty of good intentions and no follow through.
Often the missing ingredient is: motivation. And this is also Morris’s secret weapon.
On a secret Facebook page for challenge participants, he posts inspirational messages at least daily. Participants can also post or ask questions and most do. They share their struggles, their inspirations or their tips on what’s worked for them.
I asked a question about how to reduce my constant, and I mean constant, hunger and received several suggestions from other participants. The support and camaraderie help you maintain motivation or find it when you didn’t think you had any.
Paul and Ange Puller also found the challenge extremely motivating, as they explain in this interview.
Byron McCarthy, who had lost 30 kilograms by himself before the challenge, found the scan and the dietitian helped achieve his health and fitness goals.
Asked about the medical impact of the challenges, Wilkinson said that “the benefits for people’s lives are incredible”.
It’s not only the individuals involved but their entire family who benefit. Ange Puller said: “We have got into the habit of food prep so we aren’t as tempted to eat the junk food. Our kids are seeing us be healthier and we have been making healthier choices for their school lunches. It’s been really positive for our family.”
Wilkinson said that one of the additional benefits is “people come away with a new group of friends”.
I haven’t been involved with the group as much as I’d like because I travel so much for work and study; however, I have reconnected with people and definitely have extended my local network.
Meanwhile, Morris has committed to do the Gold Coast Marathon in 2018 to raise money for Livin – It Ain’t Weak to Speak, a charity that aims to take the stigma out of talking about mental health issues.
Finding out about Morris and his commitment to improving health in our local community has reminded me that while it’s important to look at the big picture – how we can influence state and national policy – it’s also important to be a participant in our own community.
We need to recognise the often-overlooked public health work that individuals are undertaking for no personal benefit other than to their community.
In 2018, I encourage you to take a look around and support people in your community who are doing good work.
• Summer May Finlay, a Yorta Yorta woman, PhD scholar, public health consultant and contributing editor at Croakey, regularly shares photos on social media profiling the beauty of the Lake Macquarie area – a reminder, too, of the many ways in which “Looking Local” is good for our wellbeing. Enjoy some more of her photos below.