Painting the town silver

A passion to help people live longer, independently and with quality of life

How a desire to help Australia’s ageing population has inspired one UOW graduate to create a unique walking and falls prevention program that’s changing lives.

It was just over 10 years ago when Tracey Fredericks decided she wanted to change the direction of her life.

“I woke up and just thought ‘how did I end up here?’ I realised work had become more about the money, rather than the love,” she explains.

Tracey had been working in different management roles and government jobs and is quick to clarify that while she did like those jobs, she knew she wanted more.

“I wasn’t unhappy in those jobs and the skills I’d picked up along the way were invaluable, but I had always wanted to be a physiotherapist. So I went travelling, came back and enrolled in uni.”

It was 2008 and Tracey enrolled in a Bachelor of Science (Exercise Science) at UOW. She studied part-time and finally graduated in 2018. But the 10 years in-between weren’t easy. “There was some adversity along the way. I got married, had a baby and got divorced. But I never gave up, I kept chipping away,” she says.

It was this steely determination that helped Tracey overcome her next setback. With her heart set on a career as a physiotherapist, she applied to do a Master of Physiotherapy at a Sydney-based university. But things didn’t go to plan and Tracey wasn’t offered a place.

“I was pretty happy just to get on with things but I had also applied to do a Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology at UOW and the Course Coordinator called me one day and said he had one spot left that I could have. I had two days to make up my mind.”

It was a sliding doors moment for Tracey. She accepted the place.

“It’s almost like things happen for a reason because I always wanted to be a physiotherapist but once I started my masters, I realised I didn’t want that anymore.”

It was the holistic approach of exercise physiology that appealed to Tracey and once she started studying she knew this was her calling. Her studies allowed her to delve deeper into understanding the challenges and needs of the ageing population, something she’s always been passionate about.

“I’ve always had an interest in making sure people live longer, independently and with quality of life. I was so alarmed when I looked into the statistics of fall-related injuries and hospitalisations,” she says.

Falls are a significant health issue across Australia’s ageing population. One in three people over the age of 65 experience a fall each year. Falls remain one of the leading reasons for older people being admitted to hospital (at a rate of 38 per cent compared to 13 per cent for transport related injuries). And alarmingly, females account for the majority of fall injury cases (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

“They say we have a health care system and it really is a sick care system. I realised there needed to be more preventative programs out there.”

With a drive to make a difference and armed with the latest statistics she approached the owners of Soul Fit, a local gym she’d started working at while she was doing her undergraduate degree. Her idea was simple – a walking and falls prevention program for women over 65 years old. Owners Alexandra Blake and Alita Ashcroft backed her all the way.

And so Silver Sneakers was born.

“We loved that Tracey came to us with this initiative. At Soul Fit we’ve always been inclusive of all ages, so this was a natural fit. We saw it as an opportunity for the community to benefit from Tracey’s knowledge and skills in such a specialised field,” Soul Fit co-owner, and UOW alumna, Blake says.

Silver Sneakers is a nine-week program with a goal of improving quality of life through safe, enjoyable and evidence-based exercise.

The program combines education, walking, strength and balance exercises and is personalised to the needs of each woman. It’s capped at 10 participants, with each receiving a set of dumbbells and a resistance band, allowing them to do the program at home too. Women are assessed at the start and at the end of the program.

“I wanted Silver Sneakers to be truly holistic. We meet in a park in Bulli and I talk to the women about how and why the exercises help them. I also get a dietitian and podiatrist to come and speak to them about their changing needs as they age,” Tracey says.

The program places an emphasis on falling and what women should do if they fall over.

“Silver Sneakers isn’t designed to stop women having a fall because you can’t predict that, but if a lady does have a fall then this program will help her to be able to get back up, or recover better from it.”

Tracey is the first to admit that it hasn’t been easy to get where she is today, from the challenges that come with being a single parent, to the financial pressures of studying and working part-time.

“There was a time when I failed a subject and I thought ‘I just can’t do this anymore’, but I always finish what I start. So I asked for help when I needed it and I’m so glad that I didn’t give up,” she says.

The women who completed the first round of Silver Sneakers in 2019 are also grateful that Tracey didn’t give up, with many saying their life has changed for the better.

Franki Thompson, 72, says her dumbbells now take pride of place on her kitchen bench. At the end of the Silver Sneakers program her balance on one foot improved by 50 per cent and she can complete two sets of bicep curls with her 2kg dumbbells. But for Franki, it’s the social aspect of Silver Sneakers that’s been invaluable.

“It’s changed my life because of the regularity and it has definitely improved my strength. It just proved itself to be the missing piece of the puzzle,” she says.

The physical outcomes of Silver Sneakers exceeded all of Tracey’s expectations, from the women making huge strength and flexibility improvements, to one now having confidence to catch a train independently. But it’s the coffee and chat at the end of every Silver Sneakers session that has created a level of connection that Tracey didn’t expect.

“That social interaction and connection is so crucial to an ageing population. As you get older your family grows up, kids move on and sometimes partners die, you often become more isolated,” she says.

“By the end of the program some of the women were picking each other up on the way and they’ve stayed connected outside of Silver Sneakers.”

There’s talk of expanding Silver Sneakers into other parts of the Illawarra too, something that Tracey would like to see happen in the future. But for now, she is working with Soul Fit on the second stage of the program, and 80 per cent of the women have returned to do it again.

If you suggest to Tracey there must be something pretty special about her for nearly all of her Silver Sneakers clients to return for round two, she’s quick to play it down.

“You have to show people you’re human as well. I have my own challenges in life and I think that’s what brings people together. I just love what I do and I think people connect with that.”

Tracey Fredericks
Bachelor of Science (Exercise Science), 2017
Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology, 2019
Graduate Certificate in Work Health and Safety, 2019