Two hundred people joined Patu Gym on its opening day in Napier last month, thanks to word-of-mouth from its foundation gym's members.

Patu Aotearoa's first gym opened in Hastings three years ago and its group exercise programmes, designed for Maori and Pasifika fighting obesity, have struck a chord.

It won six months' business mentoring through Launchpad, a nationwide incubator for social enterprise projects, and a national rollout is underway.

A franchised branch recently opened in Wairoa and another due in Kaikohe by the end of March, likely followed by Whanganui.


"We wanted to start at the top of the country and work our way down but there has been a lot of interest after we had a documentary screened last year," director Levi Armstong said.

It highlighted Patu's success and Levi's choice to not follow the patched-gang road of his father.

"I didn't have a flash upbringing - my whanau were heavily involved in the gang as well as being on the benefit," he told Sunday Stories.

"We thought it was the norm - parties, alcohol, drugs. We thought every kid was exposed to that."

With a degree in sport and recreation from EIT he has made an enormous change in his own life, but with Patu Aotearoa he is also changing the lives of others, battling an epidemic of obesity and related diseases.

After working as a personal trainer in a local gym, three years ago he teamed with Jackson Waerea to establish a group exercise programme with a difference.

Levi established a brand and workout called Patu, a programme offered to workplaces, schools and marae via a team of mobile trainers.

The Hastings gym was next and its success caught the eye of the Hawke's Bay District Health Board, which last year subsidised membership for people fitting body mass index criteria.


A 2014 Board report showed Hawke's Bay people were less physically active than the national average. Its author was so surprised at the region's poor showing she had the data revalidated.

It said a lack of physical activity was related to the region's high obesity rate. One in three adults was obese, but for Maori it was one in two and for Pasifika it was two in three people.

Patu uses a business model to create social impact and effect change, making it sustainable should outside funding disappear, he told Hawke's Bay Today.

Its emphasis on exercises utilising bodyweight and group classes made it more cost-effective than conventional gyms, which could cost up to $300,000 in plant and equipment.

"Napier cost $65,000 to get up and running.

"Our target market is probably a bit different as well - we are targeting probably the larger whanau."

The average class size was 30, with gyms offering five or six sessions a day.

"We found there is more benefit for whanau in a group atmosphere with people pushing each other on."

He has been working for the business full-time for two years.

"A lot of the profit goes back into Patu, hopefully creating more impact in other communities.

"That's what attracted us to social enterprise - it is not a normal company with franchises all about profit, for us it is about putting people first. If we can break even we're happy."

Helping finance new branches was a focus for expansion, with crowd funding an option.

When choosing franchisees, money came behind commitment and community reach.

"We are just putting together a bit of a pitch to get some capital - to get some of these franchises up and running. A lot of the guys don't have capital so we are hoping that through the government and other agencies we can pick up enough to get it up and running, creating more of an impact."

He said just getting people active was not enough.

"Diet is about 70 per cent. A lot of Maori/Pacific people haven't been educated - many don't know what a protein or carbohydrate is, what they are putting into their body.

"For some their diet is how they have been brought up, so we are working on running workshops and looking at adding food to the business so people can come in, have their workout and get some food.

"We're hoping that will take off."

Healthy didn't mean more expensive.

"It is just being more efficient, I guess. A lot of people don't plan their meals. I asked the class this morning what they were having for lunch and 80 per cent didn't know.

"I think if you're a bit more efficient and efficient with your money - spending it wisely - a lot of the healthy food can go along the way.

"A lot of people are eating out now, going out for lunch or stuff like that. There are probably three of four meals they could have at home.

"They have the money. I think the budget is just an excuse some of the time for some of them."

He is keen for Patu to help fight childhood obesity and sees an opportunity to work with the Government.

In October it announced a programme which would see more than 4000 obese four-year-olds referred to experts in healthy eating and physical activity.

Childhood obesity one of the Health Ministry's health targets. along with existing targets such as more smokers quitting and shorter stays in hospital emergency departments.

"We are quite keen to take part. We've been able to take Patu to schools and marae - taking physical activity to the people - so we are hoping we can pick up more funding from the DHB, trying to get them before they actually become obese.

"It's what Mum and Dad are up to. If we can get them to eat healthy it flows on. We are the ones putting their food in kids' mouths and they are more likely to eat what we eat, so it's just education around nutrition and getting active."

He said conventional gyms such as Les Mills had nothing to fear from Patu's popularity.

"We are quite keen to work alongside them. We're a different target market. Hopefully someone like Philip [Mills], who is a philanthropist, will jump on board."