Isolated from the rest of the world and nestled in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, Cook Islands is a dream that many would love to live.
Far from the city buzz, the lush mountains and pristine beaches is nothing less than “heaven on earth” for the lucky 17,000-odd locals.
But this remoteness comes with a heavy price.
The nation does not produce its own goods, which means it relies heavily on imported products. The country’s struggle to become self sustainable in agriculture means people here opt for cheaper, processed foods.
By saving few dollars, Cook Islanders are putting themselves at a huge health risk. The high consumption of imported processsed food has resulted in an increase in the country’s obesity rate to the extent it became among one of the fattest nations in the world.
This has led to multiple problems, among which a rise in noncommunicable diseases and a major public health problem.
As indicated in the Cook Islands National Health Strategic Plan 2017–2021, cardiovascular disease is the most prevalent such disease, with an average of over 200 cases each year from 2009 to 2015, followed by diabetes with an average of 100 new cases a year.
In 2015 alone, 3725 patients were recorded in the Ministry of Health’s registry for non-communicable diseases.
The figures remain consistent but not unnoticed.
The presence of gym culture in the Cook Islands continues to rise, proving a shining beacon of hope for the country and in its people “weighed down” by the stigma of obesity.
So what’s the best option to get back into shape?
Fitness Revolution gym
Located opposite the airport, gym memberships start from $110 for a month or $200 for three months. A six-month membership is $280 and for an entire year its $450.
One of the gym’s new regulars is Mata Marsters, who goes to the gym four times a week.
Marsters said when he returned to Rarotonga back in 2003, Fitness Revolution was one of the only gyms on the island at the time.
One thing he really loves about going to the gym is the friendly people and fun environment.
He said he started going back to the gym almost a year ago. “I mainly go to the gym to keep myself healthy and when I’m not in the gym, I’m usually working in the plantation.”
Going to Fitness Revolution is affordable for him, he says.
Weightlifter Melanie Poa is a personal trainer and a sports therapist. You may find her at Fitness Revolution at midday, pressing weights.
She has been back since January and enjoys massaging people to help with their injuries and training them too.
“Joining the gym is a great way to meet new people.”
A big part of fitness is mental wellbeing, she says, and there’s a great social environment at the gym.
Yoga with Victoria Dearlove
Georgie Hills says Victoria’s yin yoga classes are kind to the body and good for the soul.
Victoria expertly guides her class with warmth and good humour: “With yin yoga, you stay in poses for a long time. My tightly wound muscles find that a new challenge so I do lots of deep breathing.”
This kind of yoga’s a great mindfulness practice – you become very focused in the moment, Hills says. “Over the course of an unhurried hour, tension I’ve been carrying in my muscles ebbs away.”
Pilates with Brynn
This class makes the most of our stunning island setting, says Georgie Hills.
“With mats lined up on the deck of Trader Jacks looking out over the water, it sets you up for the day in the best possible way.”
Pilates focuses on small, controlled movements, so Hills find these sessions engage her brain as much as they do her body.
“The sociable class often get a coffee together afterwards,” she says. “I’m new to the Island and it’s been a great way of meeting people.”
This gym is another popular one, especially for extreme weightlifters. Memberships for one month starts at $60. The gym is opposite Club Raro in Tupapa, and all their equipment is new.
Terangi Taio, airport firefighter, says she fully supports Raromuscle. Her favourite part of the gym is the environment: “Everyone encourages everyone.”
Josh Goodrick, the boss, is super-helpful with workout tips, she says, and there is so much equipment to use.
She has a 6-month membership with the gym, for $300.
Down in Arorangi, Tumuora is managed by Jeff Holston where they do crossfit-style training, Olympic lifting, gymnastics and aerobics.
Paul Lynch, who has tried a few different fitness regimes like boxfit, crossfit and the cardio combat classes at the Tupapa centre, says these fitness classes are all good for weight loss and cardio, and all involve high intensity interval training.
Lynch goes four times a week to the $3 combat cardio classes, which he says are super affordable for him.
Boxfit in Muri
Whitney Raukete-Henry has been fighting to get back into shape and one way she does this going to boxfit the hour-long classes almost every morning. “I just love it,” she says.
She also attends the cardio combat classes at the Tupapa centre.
It’s really good motivation, taking an end of workout group picture that is then posted on Facebook.
“You start something and then a few months later you are like wow? Have I really lost that much weight?” she says.
Tupapa Maraerenga community gym
This is the most competitive in terms of pricing and workout schedules: the gym brings a bunch of people to their workout classes every day who keen to start moving.
They have group classes which are all high intensity interval training, and a little bit of weight-lifting.
So if pilates and yoga are not your thing, kick it up a gear with a fat burner class. It’s just $3, packed and full of fun.
With music blaring, the instructor led the class through a fast paced mix of cardio, boxing combos, squats and core work. She set a punishing pace – and the class was totally up for it.
Fitness enthusiast Oki Naea has just started going to the TMC gym. “I work out to keep fit and look good.”
He says he likes the fitness classes and the best part is that it’s just down the road from where he works.
Maiti Samson, gym manager, Zuu trainer and personal trainer, says for those looking to trim down, he always tells everyone that their diet is important – even more than working out.
A one-month membership with the TMC gym is $50; 12 months is $300.
Work-out: Jonathan Milne takes on Maiti Samson’s challenge at Tupapa community gym
Okay, so Tupapa Maraerenga community gym doesn’t have the sweeping sea views, or the fresh breeze off the Pacific Ocean. The weights room is a compact bunker, adjoining the hall where they hold the group classes. It doesn’t have a cafe. It doesn’t transform into a waterside cocktail bar at 6pm on a Friday.
It doesn’t have a sauna attached – though pending the installation of air-conditioning later this year, it does feel a bit like a sauna when I go for my mid-morning training sessions at 10am.
But what it does have is reputedly some of the best equipment on the island, the most competitive pricing, and (because it’s still a bit of a local secret) there’s always an exercycle free. That, and perhaps the most unrelenting trainer, in Maiti Samson.
On my first visit, Maiti smashed me straight into a short, steep mountain climb of cardio. When I crawled back to the office, my colleagues asked how it went: they nodded knowingly at the tired pain in the back of my eyes. “Yeah, he doesn’t ease you in gently, does he?”
On my second visit; he had me doing floor exercises that left my abs so sore I was barely able to eat lunch. That’s one way to manage my weight!
The others working out in the gym are friendly but if you’re a bit of a misanthrope and would prefer to come in the middle of the night to avoid dealing with other human beings, then there’s fingerprint entry for 24-hour access.
Group classes (early morning, lunchtime and evening) cost just $3 a time – and you don’t have to join the gym.
For those that can pay, gym membership ranges from $50 for a month, through to a discounted $300 for 12 months. But the gym is part-funded with $20,000 aid money from New Zealand’s small grants programme – and what that means is special discounts for people with health challenges and financial constraints to help them look after themselves.
Looking at my waistline, I think I might be one of those with a health challenge!