Body inclusive bushwalking group changing women’s lives

“I had always been a plus size adventurer, but I had so many people tell me that they could never do what I did. I wondered what it would be like if I became a cheerleader for plus size women to get into adventure. So I did,” Richelle Olsen, of founding Escaping Your Comfort Zone tells Body+Soul.

Richelle’s goal with her urban adventure treks for plus size women is this: to ultimately grow body positive hiking across Australia and to normalise adventure activities for people who perhaps haven’t had the confidence or validation that they can and should participate in trekking, cycling and climbing adventures. Olsen, 40, resides in Ocean Grove along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. Since founding her business in April 2016, she’s attracted women aged 25 through to 70.

VicHealth supported Richelle’s work to pilot a body-positive hiking group for women in 2017 as part of their Innovation Challenge: Sport program. “We know that too many Australian women aren’t getting enough exercise to benefit their health – two-thirds of us are sedentary or have low activity levels. It’s recommended we do at least 30 minutes of exercise each day to stay healthy and reduce our risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke,” says Melanie Chisholm, VicHealth Manager of Physical Activity and Healthy Eating. “We know for many women the fear of being judged by others as well as actual experiences of being heckled, shamed and harassed is a key reason they don’t take part in physical activity.

One adventurer who overcame her fear of judgement to join Richelle’s hiking group is 30-year-old Kylie Mills, a personal assistant and tour co-ordinator for a live entertainment company. “Besides the occasional bushwalk with my Dad when I was a teenager, I certainly didn’t think I could ever be a hiker,” admits Mills. “That sort of exercise and activity seemed far too extreme for someone like me! I had much to learn.”

For Mills, the debilitating lack of self confidence associated with her own negative body image had proven a steeper hike to handle than any she’s trekked since. “For several years, my size and shape impacted my self-esteem in a very negative way. I spent so much time focusing on what I didn’t like about my body, worrying about what others thought of me, and whether people may laugh at me if they saw me wearing activewear,” Mills says.

“It has taken a long time to get to a point of body acceptance within myself. So much of it has come from being surrounded by strong, body positive, like-minded women at Escaping Your Comfort Zone events, who have taught me that instead of focusing on the parts of me I don’t love so much, perhaps I’d be better off celebrating what this body of mine can and does do! My belly may jiggle and wobble, but give me a mountain and I’ll climb it with these strong legs of mine.”

Mills has since become a volunteer hike leader with Escaping Your Comfort Zone, a role that enables her to help other women overcome their self doubt and enjoy being in the great outdoors. “I have been leading hikes for well over 18 months. If you had told me two years ago that I would be leading hikes at least once a month for groups of women, some of whom have never hiked before, I would have laughed at you, but being a volunteer leader with Escaping Your Comfort Zone is such a huge part of my life now.

“I have had people yell at me from their cars things that target my appearance when I’ve been walking or cycling, and it can be very hard to not let those comments bring me down. I’m very grateful that I am now at a point where I am comfortable within myself, and proud of what my body can do, that I will never let people’s comments stop me from doing what I love.”