The Australian Men’s Health Forum presents the fourth instalment of our summer series on health initiatives that help men stay connected through exercise.
Cristina Caperchione knows a thing or two about developing healthy lifestyle programs for men.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, Ontario in a family of ‘strong, proud men’ who loved staying active and playing sports, Cristina’s studies in health and exercise science led her to creating programs and interventions that were specific to men.
“It’s a population that really needs some work in terms of developing programs,” she says.
“Men are an important population that often get ignored.” She found that many health programs failed to hold the interest of men facing serious illness through poor eating habits and next-to-no physical routine.
Dr Caperchione had a back-and-forth relationship with Australia, positioned at the University of Central Queensland (Rockhampton) from 2002 to 2010. She returned to the University of British Columbia (UBC) for eight years and together with researchers Joan Bottorf and Dr John Oliffe, adapted the HAT TRICK program from its original setting on the soccer pitches of Glasgow's footy clubs.
HAT TRICK was designed as a 12-week face-to-face intervention for overweight and inactive men. In Canada, it was based around hockey, the national sport. When Dr Caperchione returned to Australia, this time as the Associate Professor of Physical Activity and Health at the University of Technology Sydney, she revamped HAT TRICK within an Australia context and developed a third module around strategies for mental health.
Her team recruited men in March 2020 for an April start. But COVID struck and while the project adapted to an online framework, the important social connection offered by the program was impacted.
“The face-to-face is really important. Men come together in an environment where they feel safe and engage in open conversations.”
HATRICK has been revamped and Dr Caperchione is hoping it will soon be up and running with enough funding to develop champions in the community who will help deliver the program in various settings.
Men are recruited where men congregate - barber shops, community centres, sporting events.
“Men are motivated because they are there watching, they are fans interested in sport. Sport is a lynchpin to get them in, once they are in, they find out there is more.”
The HAT TRICK target group is men who are overweight and who have been inactive for a long period of time, but they must be in enough condition to safely engage in exercise.
Throughout the 12 weeks of the program, activity levels are increased as they learn about healthy eating and lifestyle behaviours and are given a tool-box of activities and strategies for mental health, that “spark conversation.”
Dr Caperchione also works in oncology and developing exercise programs to help people through their cancer journey.
Another project that originated in Canada – Dads in Gear – helps men who want to be involved, healthy and smoke-free dads. It was adapted to help Aboriginal men in Australia stop smoking.
The University of British Columbia's Power Play healthy lifestyle program is being considered for male-dominated industries in Australia, such as WA’s mines. Organisations can develop teams and work through challenges. One challenge is called HEADS UP, which calls on participants to engage in random acts of kindness and promote a positive workplace culture through teamwork and camaraderie.
Another - ANTE UP - gives men a deck of 52 action cards to reduce and stop smoking. Men complete and hand in cards to the workplace coach in exchange for prizes.
As exciting as these preventative health programs sound, a major barrier to bringing them to Australia has been funding. Dr Caperchione is hopeful that the growing appetite for targeted programs will pave the way for future support.
“In the past, men always felt that prevention was a feminine aspect,” she says. “You bring in the mental component and the stigma around mental health was even harder for men.
“We know men won’t participate in health services – even check-ups - until something has gone wrong. Often that is too late. Men are becoming more aware, it’s okay to be involved in preventative measures, there are environments that support men specifically. This is becoming more attractive to men.”
Cristina lives near the beach in Bondi and prioritises staying fit. Cycling, running and swimming led her to triathlons, however these days she also includes mobility and strength training.
“We all have to take care of ourselves,” she says.
“I do practice what I preach. Living a healthy lifestyle is so important as you get older for independence and for quality of life. I plan on being able to travel the world for a long time, I don’t want anything to impede that.”
Cristina’s tips for improving health and wellbeing
Eat well, lots of vegetables, fish, lean meats, good carbohydrates. Aim for the 80-20 rule and don’t be too hard on yourself.
Drink a lot of water and drink alcohol in moderation with complete breaks.
Get out into the fresh air.
Get a good night's sleep. If that’s not happening, you’ve got to figure out what is going on and create an environment that provides the best sleep.
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