In May 2015, while training for a half marathon for Team Diabetes in Lloydminster, Shelley Wiart noticed something about the people training around her: None of the people in the gym with her were Aboriginal. Considering that about 10 per cent of Lloydminster residents are Aboriginal, this seemed odd. With this revelation in mind, Shelley set off to change the face of physical activity in her community, and ended up changing the community as well.
Before the 1940s, Type 2 Diabetes was virtually non-existent in Alberta’s First Nation and Métis communities. But in the years since then, rates have risen sharply, to the point where Type 2 Diabetes rates have reached an epidemic level, three to five times higher for Canada’s First Nations people than for other Canadians, particularly women.
Shelley has seen the impacts of diabetes in her community firsthand.
“My family has an intergenerational history of Type 2 Diabetes, and my father is an insulin-dependant Type 2 diabetic,” she says. “So awareness and prevention of Type 2 Diabetes is my passion.”
Shelley, who is Métis, has also struggled with obesity in her own life. Her unhealthy habits as a child had put her on the path to developing diabetes herself, but through a number of healthy choices, including a shift in her diet and participating in marathons for Team Diabetes, she managed to change the road she was on. Now, she’s helping other women in her community do the same.
Supported by a Government of Alberta recreation grant, Shelley channeled her passion into Women Warriors, an organization devoted to increasing physical activity and reducing sedentary time for children, youth and adults, especially First Nations and Métis women. Their main program, 8 Weeks to Healthy Living, is meant to provide a more holistic approach to healthy living, incorporating activity, nutrition, and education to help create a healthier mind, body and spirit.
“I wanted to help women on their health journeys and prevent chronic diseases, like diabetes, by providing free fitness classes and nutrition education to women in my community of Lloydminster and Onion Lake Cree Nation,” Shelley says. “Every Monday night I have certified fitness instructors teach different fitness classes like zumba, yoga, circuit training, and Turbo-kick, and every Saturday I instruct free urban poling classes at an indoor walking track.”
“What’s great about it is we have moms coming in with their daughters. They both get the same information and can have fun in an environment that is positive and supportive.”
To cover the nutritional aspects of the program, Shelley brought in Dr. Sonja Wicklum, a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Calgary. Dr. Wicklum has worked with Aboriginal groups in the Maritimes to create a nutrition tool called the Canadian Aboriginal Nutrition Deck, which has also been incorporated in to the 8 Weeks to Healthy Living program. By using the CANDeck, participants are able to easily track the food they eat so they can make sure they are getting everything they need to be healthy. An emphasis is placed on the fundamentals like fruits, vegetables and fiber. What is interesting about the program is that the socioeconomic and food security realities of the participants are factored in to their nutritional plans; food and meal suggestions are based on availability and affordability within the community.
Although the program has only been running since June of last year, Shelley has begun to see some impressive results – both in her participants and in the community. One of Shelley’s Warriors was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes a week before starting the program; in fact, it’s what led her to the program in the first place. She has now lost more than 40 lbs and continues to see progress towards a healthier lifestyle. As part of building a supportive community, Shelley documents success stories like this on the Women Warriors Facebook Page.
Women Warriors has also become a focal point in strengthening the community. While the program originally started for Aboriginal women, Shelley’s classes now have a variety of women with different ethnic backgrounds. The classes have become places where women, who under other circumstances would never meet, come together and learn about each other’s culture. The Women Warriors have become their own community, even creating a closed Facebook group where they support each other, share information and plan meet-ups outside of the classes.
“I think the classes have been very important in strengthening community relationships, as well as helping other business in the area grow,” Shelley says. “Women meet new people in the community, have fun, learn about other cultures, and then when they leave the program, they continue with the activities they enjoyed, like yoga at the local studio or joining the gym.”
As for the future of Women Warriors, the sky’s the limit. Alberta Health Services has expressed interest in launching a Telehealth pilot project with Women Warriors, bringing the program to remote communities around Alberta. Ultimately, Shelley’s plan is to spread her message as far as she can.
“We’re using this year as a learning year to run through the program a few times and iron it all out,” she says. “Then the plan is to create a manual so that other communities across Alberta can launch similar programs, wherever they are.”
“There are tons of barriers to being healthy, especially in places that don’t have gyms or if people can’t afford memberships. That’s what we’re trying to get across: Good health doesn’t have to be complicated, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune!”