Empowerment through exercise
All images used with permission.
Louisa Sikaris remembers with total clarity the day she was diagnosed with diabetes. She was 10 years old.
“My father and mother, both medical specialists, picked up that I had been developing type 1 diabetes,” she said. “In the hospital bed, my mother explained to me that this ‘sickness’ I had would be life long and my father told me I had a pathway that was chosen for me. There was no choice – I had to rise to the test of my own health.
“My father put up two hands: one was me prior to the diagnosis, the other represented my life now. Now I had the opportunity to be brave, and to encourage others to do the same.”
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body is unable to produce insulin. It leads to high blood glucose levels and a lifetime of injections, carbohydrate counting and continuous monitoring. It is relentless.
The power of exercise
ACU Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science and Master of Clinical Exercise Physiology graduate Louisa is determined to use her own lived experience and her expertise to support those with diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
“I aim to empower people living with chronic conditions and of course we always aim to optimise health but, wherever possible, remission should be the aim,” she said. “Diabetes has taught me from an early age the impact of healthy behaviours and how to work with people to take control of their own health.
“My choice to go into exercise science was backwards really. I knew that I wanted to work with cardiometabolic patients, but I wanted to find out which avenue I thought was the most inspiring to patients to empower themselves.
“Exercise is a behavioural change. It is an accomplishment, physically and mentally strengthening, and enjoyable. There is so much strong evidence that exercise leads to positive outcomes. I personally enjoy a broad range of physical activity and look forward to continuing to do so.”
Making a start
Louisa honed her talent for empowering others during her studies at ACU’s Melbourne Campus.
“ACU interested me as I knew it had a supportive community because my big brother was studying on campus,” she said.
“I initially got into speech pathology but then realised exercise and sports science was more suited to me. I set myself a five-year plan to attain my dream qualification.
“I worked hard during my bachelor’s degree. I found subjects like Advanced Physiology, Exercise Prescription for Health and Wellbeing, and Health and Exercise Psychology particularly interesting. I was then able to get into the master’s program by maintaining the required grade point average.”
Paying it forward
Five years out of university and Louisa now juggles a demanding schedule helping spinal cord patients, teaching exercise science at ACU, volunteering with Diabetes Victoria and looking after her own health.
“I have become a specialised diabetes and metabolic exercise physiologist, which includes working with Diabetes Victoria, being responsible for my own patients, and venturing into the space of spinal cord injuries, where many patients have metabolic complications,” she said.
“I have come full circle at ACU and do sessional teaching in the same bachelor and master’s degrees I once completed. I have changed my position in the classroom from sitting at the desk to standing at the front, but I still approach each class with curiosity.
“I try to pass onto my students that the key to being a good scientist is being able to read and interpret data. The growth in exercise science’s popularity can be attributed to the fact that we use the best evidence-based practice to inform our interventions and treatment. This means we are more likely to make meaningful change and follow the best pathways for others to achieve their goals.”
Louisa’s commitment to empowering others extends beyond the nine to five and offers deep satisfaction.
“My extra-curricular work with Diabetes Victoria includes writing magazine articles, trips to rural Victoria to talk to the traditional owners of the land, and even webinar series where teenagers ask anonymous questions to healthcare professionals and people living with diabetes.
“But my day-to-day pride comes from my patients; their willingness to challenge themselves and create the lives they wish to lead. Seeing patients make meaningful behavioural changes to achieve their goals and maintaining the always challenging motivation is my real passion.
“I remember a conversation I had with a tutor once. They told me that the point of difference you can make in someone else’s life isn’t to help them but to provide the tools for them to help themselves.”
Keen to pursue a career like Louisa’s? Explore the sport and exercise courses at ACU.