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Bright spots, physical activity investments that work: Indigenous Marathon Foundation
  1. Rona Macniven1,2,
  2. Robert de Castella3,
  3. Elsie Belphina Seriat3,
  4. Nadine Hunt3,
  5. Adrian E Bauman1,2
  1. 1 Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2 Charles Perkins Centre, The University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  3. 3 Indigenous Marathon Foundation, Canberra, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Rona Macniven, Prevention Research Collaboration, Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; rona.macniven{at}

Statistics from

Graphic programme card

  • Country/locality/coverage:

    • Nationally across urban, rural and remote communities in Australia.

  • Target population:

    • The Indigenous population of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  • What modes/types/domains of physical activity does the programme promote?

    • The Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) uses distance running (marathons and fun runs) as a vehicle to engage with communities, develop leadership and promote healthy lifestyles, in leisure and recreational activity domains.

  • Which of the seven best investments the programme addresses?

    • Community-wide programmes involving multiple settings and sectors and that mobilise and integrate community engagement and resources (investment 6) and sports systems and programs that promote ‘sport for all’ and encourage participation across the lifespan (investment 7).

  • What sectors does it involve?

    • Education, sport, community, health.

  • Estimated programme reach:

    • Since 2010, seventy-five 18–30 year-olds have completed at least one international marathon and several thousand adults and children of all ages across over 20 communities have participated in Deadly Running Australia events, training groups and fun runs.

  • What is special about this programme?

    • IMF’s work builds capacity among young Indigenous people to be leaders and role models for healthy lifestyles and better social outcomes in order to reduce the high levels of chronic diseases and lower life expectancy and social issues in Indigenous communities.

  • Key contact:

    • Robert de Castella, AO, MBE, Founder and Director,

  • Programme website and/or Twitter/Facebook handle:


The health status and life expectancy of people of Indigenous  descent are considerably poorer than the rest of the Australian population.1 Much of this gap in life expectancy has been attributed to preventable chronic disease.2 Physical inactivity is a key risk factor for chronic disease3 and  the fourth leading contributing risk factor to the burden of disease among Indigenous Australians.4 Strategies to increase physical activity hold great promise to improve Indigenous health outcomes.

Beyond health, sport programmes have been a recommended means of improving social outcomes (such as educational achievement and crime prevention) among Indigenous communities since the 1980s.5 Many programmes aim to increase physical activity to achieve positive health and social outcomes among Indigenous people.6

What is the Indigenous Marathon Foundation?

Indigenous Marathon Foundation (IMF) is a health promotion charity that was established in 2010 and is an umbrella for four key programmes. The Indigenous Marathon Program (IMP) is an annual squad of 12 young Indigenous adults aged 18–30 years who are selected to train for the New York City Marathon, over 6 months while living in their communities. They also undertake vocational courses in sport and recreation, first aid, mental health and running coaching. Through this training and development they are equipped to be inspirational and empowering leaders in their communities and are supported and encouraged to establish and coordinate local community Indigenous running groups and fun runs as part of Deadly Running Australia. FrontRunners provides scholarships and grants to IMP Graduates for their education, career, and leadership and development opportunities. Indigenous Communities for Activity and Nutrition conducts physical health screening, weekly educational and physical activity games, and installs fitness and running tracks in remote Indigenous communities to encourage healthy lifestyles, activities and school attendance in a fun, social and non-competitive atmosphere.

Why does the IMF work? 

In a relatively short period of time, IMF has worked to reach thousands of Indigenous people. The programme has changed the views of non-Indigenous Australians towards Indigenous people, seeing achievement, commitment and the capacity to finish a marathon in just 6 months, as remarkable.

Running has many benefits associated with aerobic exercise including increased fitness, weight loss and improved mental health.7 Graduates of IMP are ordinary, relevant, local young people, who have taken leadership roles and helped drive community change. IMP provides a sense of purpose where boredom and lack of purposeful activities is a widespread problem in Indigenous communities.5 Some IMP runners have had physical and mental health challenges, few have previous running experience and are selected on their potential, not as runners, but as leaders. IMF provides training, development and support to build the potential of these young people to become aspiring role models that people in their communities can relate to in order to improve lifestyle risk factors for chronic disease3 and tackle social issues.6

A pilot evaluation of IMP health and community perceptions was conducted in one community, Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, and found positive effects of the IMP on running and broader community health perceptions. These positive effects were thought to have occurred through local role modelling of healthy lifestyles by IMP runners that had led to reduced barriers to physical activity in a community with a high initial level of community readiness (Macniven R, under review, 2017).

Why is IMF novel?

IMF takes a challenging goal (training to run a marathon in 6 months), uses it to change lives and then supports graduates to use running to inspire positive change, promote healthy lifestyles and build self-belief, pride and self-worth in others. IMF is embedded in communities and uses local role models, in contrast to many other role modelling programmes that use ‘fly in fly out’ sport or health professionals to deliver physical activity promotion. Thus, it operates in a sustainable manner, building capacity among local Indigenous people to reach hard-to-reach groups through this role modelling and the achievement of initiating previously inactive people to take up running.

Programme reach

From 2010 to 2017, seventy-five 18–30 year-olds have completed at least one marathon and there have been 9312 instances of participation in Deadly Running Australia by adults and children of all ages across over 20 communities. Indigenous Communities for Activity and Nutrition has reached approximately 2000 primary school-age children across seven communities.

Lessons learnt

It is important for IMP graduates to continue to contribute to their communities and address significant issues that matter to them such as chronic disease and mental health and incarceration rates once they finish their IMP year. During their IMP year, they have (at least) weekly contact from the head coach, regular training camps (every 6–7 weeks) and the marathon goal to keep them focused. The marathon finish line must be their start line as community leaders. We have noticed that a drop in motivation may occur in returning home after the marathon and now provide greater postmarathon support to keep them motivated. We have appointed a manager to mentor, assist planning local events, and IMF funding for new graduate-led projects, as well as establish a Graduate Leadership Group.

Providing graduates with access to emotional and well-being support services as they encourage positive changes to negative behaviours is crucial. As ‘change agents’, they can be confronted with challenging negative ‘push back’ from their community and family members.



  • Contributors All authors contributed to drafting, developing and writing this manuscript, which was led by RM.

  • Funding This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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