Te Whare Tapa Whā and health

It’s easy to forget that health and fitness involve much more than just exercise, and this model discusses that.

It won’t surprise you that landing in a new country 12 years ago shook my world – sometimes literally as I had never experienced an earthquake before arriving in New Zealand. Although “they don’t speak Portuguese here much” seemed like it would be one of the biggest areas I needed to adapt to, the different ways of thinking and explaining the world were (and still are) one of my favourite things to learn about.

Cultures are fascinating and something you’re likely to see me passionately talking about with a group of friends, but I’m here to talk about the “fitness” (more on the quotes later) side of things specifically, which has a culture of its own.

Before becoming a “fitness” professional I always struggled to be a part of gyms and, like a lot of people out there, didn’t feel like my body was good enough for some spaces. I never looked like the poster on the walls, losing weight never came easily to me, and although life was good I couldn’t feel comfortable in my skin because I never felt like I could live up to being fit. Along the way something changed, I found my gang, having my body looking a certain way or being able to lift so many kilos stopped being that important and I found happiness in the journey. And I have been thinking a lot about how to explain that to myself and to others.

A couple of weeks ago I was introduced to a health framework by a friend, and it was like finally understanding something that is dear to you, that addresses everything you feel but didn’t have a word for it before – the Maōri Health Model called Te Whare Tapa Whā (the four cornerstones of wellbeing).

Wellbeing depends on all pillars being strong (source)

Now, I won’t claim to be an expert in Maōri culture and customs, or to appropriate it – I just want to celebrate something that brought me clarity and joy. I’ve been digging into this for weeks, and every door I open brings a new beautiful way of looking at the world and appreciating history. For the sake of this conversation, I’m deliberately staying within the ideas of the concept only, because what I want to talk about is how it helped me situate myself better with my work.

Te Whare Tapa Whā talks about Wellbeing being supported by four areas of life.

Taha wairua (spiritual health)

Although this can speak to someone’s religious beliefs, it goes beyond that – it involves someone’s ability to feel a sense of wonder and appreciate nature and the things in life that can’t be fully understood.

Taha whānau (family health)

The feeling of belonging and being part of a wider community and system, to appreciate your place in history and to learn from your ancestors.

Taha hinengaro (mental health)

The beauty of this concept is that it speaks to the understanding that body and mind are inseparable. It involves the ability to think and communicate, and to be in touch with your emotions.

Taha tinana (physical health)

This is the area where the fitness industry plays. This concepts speaks to the health of your body, its ability to recover from illnesses and accidents and to excel at physical tasks (how you look is besides the point).

The reason why I had “fitness” in quotes earlier on is because I believe that the industry sometimes misses the point, and I’m not sure why. Although fitness professionals are not necessarily qualified to (and most times shouldn’t) address mental, family and spiritual matters, sometimes we forget that making people “fit” won’t mean they’re magically healthy or feeling fulfilled and happy. The problem is even worse when we attach the idea of fitness to a number or a look, which most times can be unrealistic and play negatively to other areas of health.

So what then?

As I said, I don’t think Personal Trainers and Coaches should become psychologists or embed themselves in every client’s family. But it’s our responsibility to appreciate how complex different people are and support them in more ways than just giving them a set of exercises to do. It’s our duty to remember that their work with us on their physical health is but just one of the foundational aspects of what health means.

Although I have a variety of clients with different goals and aspirations, this way of thinking is a lens I apply to all of them – I’m not the “gain results fast and achieve all your dreams” guy, and I’ve been using Te Whare Tapa Whā on all my interactions, to motivate my clients and support them on their physical health, but also to listen and give them perspective. Sometimes they have a tough week for some reason and they come in feeling guilty because that week wasn’t that good in the exercise and nutrition area, and I do what I can to remind them that focusing on another area of the house that needs immediate attention is okay.

I love learning about new ways of thinking and appreciating health, so please feel free to share with me any other ideas you might know of.

If you would like to discuss how I can help you work on your physical health, get in touch!

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