What Māori men really think about exercise
Māori men are disproportionately affected by lifestyle-related illnesses associated with sedentary behaviour, but relatively little is known about their thoughts and preferences towards exercise.
Dr Isaac Warbrick is an exercise physiologist at the AUT School of Public Health & Psychosocial Studies and director of the Taupua Waiora Centre for Māori Health Research at AUT South Campus.
He says current approaches to health promotion emphasise physical and mental wellbeing, but often lack cultural relevance.
“There’s a lot of gym talk and so-called motivational memes on social media about there being ‘no excuse not to exercise,’ but providing for your family and putting whānau first is more important for Māori men. We can’t expect them to engage in forms of exercise that take an hour or more out of their day when they barely get that time to spend with their family,” says Dr Warbrick.
He conducted a qualitative study of sedentary Māori men aged 30-70 years with a body mass index over-25. Participants shared their preferences and thoughts on physical activity.
Four key themes emerged from the data – ‘camaraderie and bro-ship’, ‘adulthood distractions and priorities’, ‘provider orientation’ and ‘problems with contemporary gym culture’.
A sense of camaraderie or bro-ship motivated the men to be physically active. They talked about how much easier it was to exercise with a friend. Participants had a strong collective orientation, whether it was as part of a military unit, sports team or group of friends. There was a sense of accountability and responsibility to the group and its members to persevere and do their best. Without this, it was difficult to find the motivation to exercise.
Accountability to others often superseded individual aspirations. This extended to the men’s roles in their whānau and community. When talking about earlier life experiences, participants said physical activity almost always involved working as part of a group. Mostly, it was physically demanding work, not exercise in the modern sense, such as gathering and preparing food, chopping wood or working on a farm. No effort was required to be active as it occurred naturally.
Prior to adulthood, participation in sport was also extremely important to the men, often taking precedence over education. Once they got older, work and family commitments took priority, leaving little time or energy for sport or other physical pursuits.
Participants frequently associated physical activity with being a provider for their whānau and community. Being able to provide for others had more value than physical fitness for themselves.
Some men had enjoyed going to the gym in the past. Others found it ‘a last resort’ and ‘a rip-off’, with many stating that this money would be better spent on their whānau. One of the biggest deterrents to using the gym was that it felt like ‘a fish bowl’, which negatively affected their performance.
Participants also felt that they had little in common with the types of people who worked in gyms. While most had attended a gym or participated in an exercise programme, they rarely received ongoing support. And, those who had used a personal trainer felt that their expectations were seldom met. A sense of competition or challenge was also missing from contemporary gym culture.
Despite the ready availability of exercise-related information online, participants indicated that they lacked the ‘know how’ required to exercise effectively. This was compounded by conflicting health promotion messages, making it difficult for them to navigate opposing information.
Participants wanted to gain knowledge and pass that on to whānau and friends, but they needed the right teacher and information. Their desire to be healthy role models for their children were key reasons to become more active. In some cases, children had motivated lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking. Many men wanted to live longer for their family and recognised the impact that poor health would have on their whānau.
“By blending high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with group-based and culturally relevant approaches, Māori men can get physically active in far less time. And, they can do it in an appropriate environment that enhances more than just their physical health,” says Dr Warbrick.