Healthier Pacific lives – Islanders cook and train their way to longer lives

Alex and Liz Fogavini, in blue, founded Brisbane’s Phiitkid gym. Picture: ABC/SUPPLIED: LIZ FOGAVINI

Allisha Pepe wears many hats — mother, grandmother, entertainer — but despite the Niuean-Cook Islander’s tight schedule and lack of sleep, she prioritises time to train.

“I love working out for myself, for my body, also for my mind,” she said. “I do it for my family so I can look out for them and my grandkids.

That’s my ‘why’. My motivation and my inspiration are my kids.”

Pasifika communities in Australia have historically had worse health outcomes than the general population, with higher rates of obesity and diseases like diabetes.

But Allisha is part of a growing movement of Pacific Islanders who are embracing healthier lifestyles in order to reduce rates of chronic disease in the community.

She goes to Phiitkid gym, south of Brisbane, which was founded by Samoan husband and wife duo Alex and Liz Fogavini in a bid to provide a culturally comfortable space for Pacific Islanders to exercise.

Alex said most gyms looked too “hardcore” for novices and could be “really daunting”.

“If our mums and dads look at that, straightaway it’s like, ‘I can never do that.’ And 100 per cent, they can’t do that,” he said.

“A bigger person will see someone that’s muscular, fitter, and their confidence will just drop.

“We can scale any movement to that person, so it doesn’t matter how fit you are, but (lack of) confidence is a massive [issue].”

A family-friendly gym

For Liz, fostering a sense of belonging was important.

“I’m a real advocate for our mums. I know how hard it is, having kids and a busy schedule, trying to find the time to train,” she said.

“I like that when they come and bring the kids to me, they feel at home. So that’s a big thing for us is making sure that there’s a safe space for everyone.”

Alex said their gym did not have members, with everyone treated like family.

“If a baby’s crying, us trainers pick up the kids; we see them as our own children and they call us uncle and aunty — it’s just that sort of family environment.”

‘Build better families’

In 2018, Tonga’s then-prime minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva challenged his Pacific counterparts to a year-long weight loss competition, to set an example for the region, which has some of the world’s highest rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases. It is a similar story in the Pacific diaspora.

The most comprehensive Queensland-wide study of Maori and Pasifika health needs revealed major health inequalities.

Compared to the general population, people born in Samoa, for example, are: Three times more likely to develop diabetes Seven times more likely to have complications associated with diabetes 1.5 times more likely to be admitted to hospital Two times more like to die from an avoidable condition.

A twist on traditional dishes

While exercise is important, a good diet is also key for those wanting to live longer, healthier lives.

Traditional Pacific Islands foods like chop suey, corned beef and coconut cream are staples in many families’ diets but are notoriously high in fats and carbohydrates.

Run by Children’s Health Queensland, the Good Start program aims to reduce the levels of chronic disease and obesity in the community through a range of services covering lifestyle, nutrition, cultural support, pregnancy, and parenting.

Samoan multicultural health worker Brent Wallwork has become known for his Good Start cooking tutorials that put healthy twists on Pacific dishes, often by using low-fat ingredients.

His job takes him to schools and community halls around south-east Queensland to deliver cooking classes to Maori and Pasifika families.

Brent said tragedy in his own family set him on this health journey. “Four years ago, my sister passed away from a heart attack,” he said. He said

her heart attack and other conditions like diabetes could have been prevented by lifestyle changes. He went on to lose more than 50 kilograms.

“Pacific people have this thing around food and health where it’s a joke and laugh at it … but it’s a serious problem. “We are trying to change the behaviours, change the narrative.”

‘We come from these families’

Maori nutritionist Kirstine Kira said the Pacific Islanders on her team understood the challenges families faced when putting food on the table.

“We come from these families, so we ask, ‘Is this going to be realistic? Are we going to be able to afford it? Are we going to be able to make eight portions of it?'” she said.

“We talked about using a $2 packet of frozen vegetables, so we can do things that will increase our vegetable intake.

” Kirstine said getting back to basics was important.

“Our traditional diets before colonisation were rich in fruits, vegetables, seafood, lean meats, and we got a lot of physical activity,” she said.

“In essence, we really are just looking to revert back to that.” Alex and Liz Fogavini agreed.

“We want to (promote) something as small as two minutes of walking, one minute of rest — just little education things that, scaled down, will start their journey,” Alex said.

“We want to do our part to keep mum and dad alive.”

Melissa Maykin is a journalist with the Asia-Pacific Newsroom, covering the Pacific. She has worked in regional news, local radio, features, national news and podcasting across the ABC.

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