Whakapapa Fridays: How to fit a traditional lifestyle into our modern lives

Despite many of us knowing about the benefits of regular exercise, most of us still struggle to do enough. Why is that?

News / 20 April, 2017

Whakapapa Fridays: How to fit a traditional lifestyle into our modern lives

Photo: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 471-9748

Regular exercise is widely known to be good for our health. It increases our strength, gives us more energy, improves our sleep, helps us maintain a healthy weight, supports functional coordination and more. Regular exercise can even fight off metabolic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity and various cancers.

The amount of physical activity we engage in day to day is defined by four areas: how active our job is, how we get from place to place, what we do at home and what we do for fun. The modern lifestyle is one where you might work behind a desk, drive around in your car, cook dinner in the microwave, and spend your free time watching TV on the couch. Being physically active is no longer the norm. Compare that to how our tūpuna lived and you can see that their daily physical exertion was much greater than the average modern individual. They may have spent the day tending a garden, walking from place to place as the primary mode of transportation. Dinner might have involved preparing the hāngī pit, and spare time might have involved haka or taonga tākaro (games).

We know that the active lifestyle our tūpuna engaged in contributed to a high level of wellness documented by foreign settlers. Unfortunately, our modern society makes it difficult to return to that way of life. But there are small things that we can do across those four areas to increase the level of physical activity we partake in throughout the day.

If you work behind a desk you might invest in a standing or walking work station—your workplace should pay for it because sitting down all day could literally be killing you. When it comes to transport, walk and bike more often. At home, ditch the microwave to force you to stand while cooking over a stovetop. Pick up an active form of leisure like walking, playing sports, or going to the gym. These are small changes that will make an impact on how active we are throughout the day. For those of us who are active for a very small part of the day, these small changes can have a significant, positive impact on our health.

I have often wondered if there would be an activity our tūpuna engaged in that we could transplant in to our modern lifestyle to improve our wellbeing. We have kapahaka (performing arts), waka ama (waka paddling), mau taiaha (Māori weaponry), and other Māori activities that we can incorporate in to our leisure time. But what I have come to realise is that health is impacted by a broad range of factors, and as a result, meaningful change requires something greater than a single activity.


High intermittent interval training is a dance between Tū and Rongo, the more frequently we engage in that relationship, the better our health will be.


Our tūpuna did not require the need to develop an advanced method for losing fat. This is because the traditional lifestyle was an adequate system to ensure healthy children, and adults who lived to an old age. As Māori, we developed these systems over time, and introduced new technology and methods in response to our changing environment. I believe we should continue to do the same today, and Māori-fy new ways of engaging in physical activity to match our modern needs.

With the prevalence of obesity and type-2 diabetes among Māori, being smart about how we spend our leisure time to improve our health is important. Two of the best ways to burn fat and reduce our risk of developing health complications, is through long, slow aerobic activity, and high intensity intermittent training.

30 to 60 minutes of walking at a low to moderate intensity will burn fat as a fuel source. This is great for those of us who have trouble moving. The down side to low intensity walking is that you have to be active for a considerable amount of time for it to be effective. I consider aerobic activity the realm of Tāwhirimātea, where the oxygen we breath is integral to the way our body functions to burn fat. The more we connect to Tāwhirimātea through walking, the greater his impact has on our health.

The other method, high intensity intermittent training, involves a period of hard work, followed by a period of rest, and repeating this for a set period of time. For example, 20 seconds of maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of complete rest, repeated for ten rounds. The key to high intensity intermittent training is giving absolutely everything you can for that 20 seconds. It is very tough work, but a workout like this will only take five minutes. High intensity intermittent training has been shown to be as good as the walking for burning fat, but it takes considerably less time. The challenge here is that you have to be fairly motivated to push yourself like you have never done so before in that 20 seconds. I consider this type of training within the realm of Tūmatuenga and Rongo. Tū embodies that hard-physical effort, while the potential for recovery resides with Rongo. Just like the ancient battle of Pōhutukawa between Tū and Rongo, each atua has a period where their mana overpowers the other. High intermittent interval training is a dance between Tū and Rongo, the more frequently we engage in that relationship, the better our health will be.

To improve our health through physical activity we can learn from the traditional practice of our tūpuna and can strive to increase our daily physical activity through our jobs, how we get from place to place, what we do at home, and what we do for fun. Given our modern lifestyles, there are also new ways that we can adapt as Māori to meet our modern needs. We can maximise our leisure time through engaging in the aerobic work of Tāwhirimātea, or the high intensity intermittent training of Tū and Rongo. At the end of the day, any extra movement you do is going to be beneficial, but maybe try a little bit of Tū and Rongo for your next workout.

Te Miri Rangi


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