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The A-Team Making Mountain Biking More Accessible For NDIS Participants

All these incredibly happy faces,All these thankful parents and carers…The whole program…It very nearly didn’t even get off the ground…

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For Chris and his team, running their outdoor allied health adventure therapy programs’ for NDIS Participants in South East Queensland, Mountain biking, Hiking, Rock Climbing and Kayaking have become so much more than a great way to exercise, get fitter and have fun.

“All these incredibly happy faces, all these thankful parents and carers…The whole program… It very nearly didn’t even get off the ground…crazy right! You couldn’t imagine that now, could you!” Chris, director of OpentraX outdoor adventure therapy programs, explains that the activities they’ve focused on, as a modality to deliver their allied health therapies may have initially ‘hit the brakes’ on the development and uptake of the programs in South East Queensland. Many people who aren’t regular participants often see mountain biking, and rock climbing  as extreme sports with a dangerous reputation, They are changing perceptions every they go now!“When you say ‘Mountain Biking’, the perception is that we’re all ‘extreme-sports’ wild danger chasing types or red-bull riders who are jumping off cliffs, speeding over skinny little trails, down steep hills and dodging rocks, trees and roots; which is only about two per cent of us.” “There’s some important differences between what we do at OpentraX as allied health professionals running our adventure therapy programs, and other ‘programs’ out there that pop up overnight who are often throwing caution to the wind by taking people out mountain biking, uninsured, unqualified and underprepared. The associated risks and dangers can be mitigated, minimised, managed, planned for and even removed when you’ve got an amazing team who go far above and beyond every day, creating, crafting and carefully planning the programs for such a long time.”The program has attracted practitioners from all over the country who are extremely passionate about the outdoors. The team, made up of allied health therapists, teachers and outdoor educators has allowed program facilitators to share their passion around nature with people who have a diverse range of mental and physical challenges. Participants enjoy the activities, and are very consistent with attendance because they enjoy the programs so much, allowing practitioners to help them to achieve incredible outcomes.

Hundreds of overjoyed riders, parents and carers are glad that Chris has now made sure that the gap no longer exists.

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How Did This Program Come To Be?

The pandemic caused a lot of disruption for everyone, particularly those who were most vulnerable, needing allied health therapies but unable to receive them in Chris’s clinics or gyms. Watching them yo-yo open and close, cancelling sessions and rebooking them only to have to cancel them again was unsustainable and impacting clients mental and physical health significantly. A large number of existing clients suffering from mental health issues, injuries and disabilities who were unable to access his services spurred him to think outside the box.Eventually, after coming up with the idea while out on a morning mountain bike ride, Chris, became curious about how he could get others out on the trails  to benefit from the power of what nature has to offer as he had experienced since a young age. Through combining skills from his Masters degree in Exercise Physiology and Bachelor of Human Movements and many years of clinical experience, OpentraX was born. Research on accessing therapies in the great outdoors only managed to russle up a few digital tumbleweeds. A big gap was leaving people with disabilities, injuries and mental health conditions unable to easily access therapy if the clinic model didn’t suit them. The hundreds of overjoyed participants, parents and carers that have now been through the program are glad that Chris has now made sure that the gap no longer exists.

The start of a Social-traX© ride on the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail

Chris has been riding around on mountain bikes since he was 5 years old. Growing up in the leafy suburb of The Gap, in Brisbane’s West meant plenty of tracks and trails close by.  He loves technical climbs, rocks, drops and logs, just like a lot of mountain bikers do. More than anything, Chris enjoys teaching and coaching a rapidly growing number of enthusiastic NDIS Participants who are now reaping the rewards of mountain biking regularly in our beautiful South East Queensland.

Having a hard earned drink, Jake rests at the top of one of the trails.

“The little information that was available online was from the America, The UK and Canada – there was minimal information or programs specifically relating to outdoor adventure therapy in Australia. I saw that there was no easy way for people with a disability to get out and hike, ride, climb while receiving the benefits of their needed allied health therapy. I really wanted to make these activities as accessible as possible for people living with various disabilities and health conditions while at the same time being able to offer an option that is safe, enjoyable and delivered by university-qualified allied health professionals”. In 2021,  OpentraX started doing just that, the program soon evolved into a hands-on, entirely new way of delivering much needed therapies to NDIS and private participants. The programs aim to help people with all kinds of disabilities and impairments access off-road tracks, trails, hopefully leading them to a lifetime love of their chosen activity and their many benefits – not just health and fitness related.

Amanda, Zac and Zaheem listen to the plan of attack.

It’s all about community participation,engagement and entry-level,grass-roots participation.

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Specific Programs For Specific Needs

The Queensland based team (for now), has a number of Clinical Exercise Physiologists, Occupational therapists, Psychologists, Outdoor Educators and Teachers who are qualified coaches and lead the programs and day trips.  After a look around their different program offerings, it’s obvious that Mountain bike riding is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the courses and programs they offer. OpentraX has clearly spent a great deal of time and money to produce the extensive catalogue of high-quality, outcome-focused programs and courses for people who don’t or won’t attend run-of-the-mill clinics. Covering a large range of important areas such as nutrition, meal plans, injury rehabilitation, strength & conditioning programs for home or the gym, bushwalking and hiking, as well as many others that could be another article on their own.Many of the programs can be found online but to participate, most of the programs are run ‘face-to-face’ and are only available to those who are in South East Queensland currently but they are working to expand their service area. Make no mistake though, getting just a single person onto a bike or hiking trail – whether they’re returning from serious injury or just wanting to try hiking, climbing or off-road cycling for the first time – is a complicated process with nuanced metaphorical mountains to climb before you can get your boots or tyres dirty.

Scene from the beautiful Brisbane Valley Rail Trail on an early morning ‘Grab Life By The Handlebars’ program ride. Arguably the best time to be out there.

“For people early on in the recovery process after an injury, there are a lot of medical things that still need to be sorted out post-discharge,” he says. “One of the most basic challenges is transport: just getting people to riding locations. Usually anything more than an hour’s drive can be a little difficult, for a whole range of medical and disability-related reasons. The locations that OpentraX run programs in are generally very accessible and have had support from local councils and state government, the bigger day trips like out to the ‘Brisbane Valley Rail Trail’ can be a bit harder for people to get to so we often offer a few transport options for those.”

Rob loving life in the softly carpeted pine needle undercover. He has now lost 16.3kg since joining the program.

These days, decent bikes don’t come cheap, which is why OpentraX RIDES programs are such a natural entry point for many participants. We supply people with our own well-serviced and maintained quality mountain bikes so they can make sure they know they enjoy the activity before spending any money on buying equipment. Funding is available in Australia through the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) and can be used to cover the program costs of the programs, but you might not want to mention your latent penchant for ‘extreme sport’ on any official document…because it wouldn’t quite be accurate.

When Mountain Biking is mentioned, people often imagine us all riding like they see on TV. It’s different experience for everyone.

“You see all these videos of guys and girls ‘Mountain Biking’ on Youtube and TV… dropping off big table-tops, and speeding almost sideways around wall-rides and two-metre tall berms – that’s a bit hard to explain to the NDIS that what we are doing is quite a bit different and a whole lot safer than that!,” says Chris. “The NDIS doesn’t like the words ‘sports’ and ‘competition’ because they’re not covered within the framework. It’s all about capacity building, community participation, engagement, and helping people to form genuine social connections external to our OpentraX programs, and entry-level, grass-roots participation, which is exactly what the program achieves”. Power-assist (electric motors, costing up to $8,000 per bike) are becoming a must-have for novice cross-country riders, especially when they have a condition that makes them fatigue quickly or at the drop of a hat. “We run sessions using bikes without power-assist and for some people they fatigue quite quickly because they aren’t yet used to the sustained output, they improve quickly after a few sessions with our program facilitators though.” says Chris.

Different assessments are done to help personalise your program and provide people with measurable results and data to show improvements.

It’s a finely tuned process when it comes to individualizing someone’s program, “The application and initial assessment is quite thorough so we have a very good idea of what fitness, experience and ability level someone is at before they even see a bike which really lets us individually tailor each program to that person. As allied health professionals, we have extensive university-level training on how to work with, address and improve a very wide range of injuries, conditions and disabilities”. The application process makes sure that we aren’t throwing someone in the deep end if they haven’t ridden much and also serves as a way to make sure that if someone is experienced that we can build out a program where we are going actually to challenge participants skills if that is something that they want. We’ve had people that have only ridden a bike a few times through to participants that have been riding for years who want to learn some higher level skills or go out for one of our epic adventure day trips.

David, an NDIS participant, enjoying being out seeing wallabies, native birds, and refreshing country air on his day trip out with the OpentraX RIDES© program.

The application process is quite thorough so we have a very good idea of what level of fitness, experience & ability someone has before they even see the bike.

This lets us tailor each program specifically to each person making sure they get the most out of their time with us.

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“At the moment, we are still waiting to order our adaptive-bikes as they are very expensive and take a long time to custom build for the good ones, so for the time being we have been using your usual two-wheeled variety of mountain-bike. It has meant we are limited to taking NDIS participants who are already able to ride a bike at a very basic level without assistance. The plan is to keep applying for funding and donations to raise the money to purchase the 3 and 4-wheel bikes to open the doors to even more participants who would benefit. That’s the dream!…and our team are busily working on it!”

Nelson and Tim work on their low speed balance and obstacle approaches.

Chris and OpentraX are very focused on raising awareness of the potential that combining these activities with allied health sessions has, scouting out people that “don’t even realise it is a thing” who could benefit from it like he has seen it do for so many. “You’re always going to have your 20 per cent of fit, quite independent people who’ll find their way onto the tracks and trails,” he says. “We focus on the other 80 per cent who aren’t connected to the community. It’s about getting a message out to the mental health, and disability sectors because the generally benefit most. We have people who have made lifelong friends doing this, it’s a great way to create a commonality between people. Learning the same skills, drills, puts people on the same page. Even some of the most shy, quiet, introverted participants have come out of their shells in a way their parents and carers have never seen before because of the programs.”

Even some of the most shy, quiet, introverted participants have come out of their shells in a way their parents and carers have never seen before because of this program. That in itself is very powerful and encouraging.

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Is mountain biking’s extreme reputation a deterrent for potential RIDES© program participants?“It’s as dangerous as you make it. Driving your car can be extremely dangerous – depends on how you drive, right? We deal with a range of capacities and impairments but have a very strong risk-management process and a lot of experienced people. The aim is to help people that don’t really understand their own capacity and how far can they push things. Our guys who have ADHD and Autism often see huge benefit from learning about how to appropriately assess risk and potential outcomes from different activities we do with them.”

Ryan stops for a short break…now to enjoy a snack and cool drink in the shade.

RIDES© offers some fantastic training and learning about various bike skills, maintenance and safety but it delves much deeper into the many different aspects of learning and really shows its power for genuine capacity building by meaningfully engaging participants during and after their sessions.” After each ride someone completes with us there is an opportunity for practitioners to help participants reflect and review on the sessions activities which help highlight achievements, progress, challenges and learnings. We identify things they did well, things they want to improve on, where they improved from last time, helping participants to really think deeply about the different things they have covered and learnt in the sessions with us. This has significantly improved outcomes in areas like participants self-confidence, resilience and persistence.”

The practitioners delve much deeper into the many different aspects of learning and really shows its power for genuine capacity building by meaningfully engaging participants during and after their sessions.

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Chris envisages more people with disabilities and mental health conditions becoming part of the regular outdoor activity scene one day in the not-too distant future, and is actively making that happen every day with OpentraX programs. For Chris and his team the next challenge is bringing an ever-wider range of conditions and disabilities into the adventure therapy fold. “Mental health, prosthetic limbs, high functioning down syndrome, and a whole variety of different disabilities. We’ve going to be getting into ABIs (acquired brain injuries); people with a range of neurological impairments that affect their cognition and motor-control. It’s not going to be easy, and they often get left behind or lumped into the ‘too hard basket’ but we’ll take that challenge on board, as safely as possible, and slowly graduate people into it. It’s going to be pretty great when we can get our adaptive bikes ordered.”And that’s how outdoor adventure therapy will grow, by taking on the tough challenges one by one, becoming even more inclusive, getting more people out there who thought they couldn’t, quite literally adapting in ways that no-one could possibly dream of during the depths of their rehab. And to think, in the beginning, Chris was just being a classic aussie bloke, looking for a solution to help out a few clients who were struggling more than most during the pandemic.  They’re now operating in Brisbane, Ipswich, Logan, Toowoomba, Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast. You’ll want to submit your application promptly because they’re very popular and may have a waiting list.  If you’d like to find out more information about the OpentraX programs for NDIS participants you can visit their website at OpentraX.com.au Subscribe to their email list below to get all updates about the program. When new places open up, new bikes arrive and new packages & deals are released directly to OpentraX subscribers.  Best Bit… It’s FREE!

https://opentrax.com.au/team/chris-higgins/

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