Māori, male and overweight? New study combines whakapapa and Super Rugby

By Raniera Harrison

A groundbreaking nationwide initiative is aiming to curb obesity in Māori males through training with some of the biggest names in NZ rugby.

It's part of a study being conducted by the University of Auckland and University of Otago.  A whakapapa Māori approach is being taken to get Māori men active again amidst rising obesity statistics.

"Once a lot of Māori males hit 30, sport drops off and physical activity drops off and our rates of obesity increase really quickly," says Dr Ihirangi Heke (Waikato-Tainui).

RuFit-NZ is an initiative run by the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland, a 12-week healthy lifestyle programme delivered through professional rugby clubs.

It's an opportunity for overweight Māori males to train with some of the biggest names in NZ rugby.

"Māori aged from 30-65, males, get to go and train with their favourite rugby team- either the Blues, the Warriors, or the Crusaders at this stage," says Heke.

Those involved in the study receive an individually tailored, on-field physical activity programme delivered by trainers of the Blues, Crusaders and Warriors NRL sides.

Heke says his involvement is bringing a whakapapa Māori approach to the study.

"You're formed by the environment that you come from, so if you come from the ocean you learn how to swim in the ocean really well, if you're from maunga then you learn patience and that you can be a stalwart in the way you do things."

While there are no nationwide Māori male obesity statistics readily available.  The latest Ministry of Health statistics show 47% of Māori adults were obese. 

"The first cohort has been through with the Blues and I think out of the 100 that are in there, I think 5 may be Māori.  We're trying to push that up to 50, we want at least half of the cohort that are coming through these programmes to be Māori," he says.

The programme itself has been trialled in Scotland, with fans training with topside soccer teams.  Now there is a massive push to apply that to Māori.

"The height you have, the muscularity you have, the speed or agility, it fits the place you've come from and so we want to start from that idea that you are the way you are because of where you've come from."

Heke says the study will directly support the longevity and health of Māori.