Brumby Fitness group breaking down cultural barriers while fighting obesity in Canberra’s Tongan community – ABC News


A group of Tongan-Australians have banded together to break the cycle of over-eating in their community.

After a serious health scare earlier this year, Toni Tu’ulakitau knew he had to change his life. 

Recovering from surgery and with a young family, the Canberra lawyer decided to prioritise his wellbeing.

So he started training with a group of friends at 4:00am. 

“Some of the blokes were weighing in at 160kg and I was recovering,” Mr Tu’ulakitau said.

Word soon got out and more people came along to train – three months later and the group has grown to more than 50 active members – from teenagers to the elderly.

They train six days a week, starting in the early hours of the morning, and have expanded the workout program to include cardio and fitness classes like Zumba, yoga, and Boxfit.

“It happened by accident, we sort of decided to expand the message about looking after your health and driving positive health in our Pacific community, but more importantly our own community, the Tongan community,” he said.

A strong looking Tongan man wearing a Brumby t-shirt looking straight at the camera.
Brumby Fitness committee president Fihi Kivalu said the group was designed to help people of all ages in the Tongan community. (

ABC News: Isaac Nowroozi


The expansion has seen the group name itself Brumby Fitness: Kalapu Kau Vaivai, which means Club of the Weak or Elderly and it has also set up a leadership committee.

“If you have a look at the dictionary [Brumby] means unbroken horse, we are unbroken people, spiritually and in every way,” Brumby Fitness committee president Fihi Kivalu said.

“But we all love to eat … we wanted to counter that.” 

Group acts as circuit breaker to over-eating culture

Members of the group said weight-related health issues were a big challenge facing the Pacific Island diaspora in Australia.

High rates of obesity put the community at high risk of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, kidney and heart disease.

The group hopes Brumby Fitness will help act as a preventative health platform.

Richard Taumoepeau is a third-year medical student and the group’s medical adviser.

Each week, he weighs and measures the members to help track their progress.

He also gives basic diet and health advice while urging members to visit their GPs for ongoing issues.

“Just little things, to encourage them, little small changes, something that can be sustainable,” he said.

“I encourage them: ‘Don’t get bogged down with the scales’, [focus] on the other improvements like finding more energy during the day, feeling a lot better.”

The back of a male wearing a Brumby shirt on an exercise machine
The Brumby fitness group has grown to more than 50 active members – from teenagers to the elderly.  (

ABC News: Isaac Nowroozi


Mr Taumoepeau said it had been satisfying to see success across the generations.

“Then they will start working on their diet because we’re monitoring their weekly weight and then they start seeing the correlation between tweaking their diet and the changes on the scale and their waistline.”

Forging stronger community connections 

The group is not just about physical fitness.

It is also about building a community and improving mental health through social engagement.

“There is a big barricade in our culture where a lot of the oldies and women are left behind.

“This platform here allows them to come here and express themselves, to come here to exercise, to come here to do training, but also to mingle with other people in the community – that is important.”

Expanding the model interstate and overseas 

Brumby Fitness has also made waves on social media.

The group has followers across Australia and overseas in New Zealand and the United States.

A young man pictured side on pulling weights in a seated position
The Brumby Fitness group in Canberra has proven to be such a successful model that it is expanding overseas.  (

ABC News: Isaac Nowroozi


It is working with groups in Sydney and Melbourne to set up similar programs in those cities.

“This is an opportunity for Brumby Fitness to excel, not only in exercising but also to reach out to the Pacific, the whole community,” Mr Kivalu said.

“We will continue to push, to do everything we can to assist and make sure that they can help the community and reach out to them.

“It’s about helping others, and that there’s nothing else besides getting healthy, staying healthy and living a healthy lifestyle.”

Gym welcomes group with open arms

Gym Club Lime added 5:00am classes to its timetable to accommodate the Brumby Fitness group in recognition of its success.

“Normally I put on a class, check the numbers, work with time slots that normally work,” Club Lime Woden manager Diane Patch said.

“But when you’ve already got a group of 30 people who want to do a class, I was quite happy to find an instructor and make it work for them.”

Ms Patch even became a member of the group herself after coming in early to help with memberships.

A gym manager with blonde hair and tattoos smiles at the camera
Club Lime Woden manager Diane Patch said she was blown away by how quickly the group developed a sense of community. (

ABC News: Isaac Nowroozi


“Once I was here at 5:30am, saw the energy of the group, I just thought: ‘There’s a bit of weekday motivation in there for me to just come along and join in,” she said.

She said she had seen communities develop in gyms before, but never this quickly.

“Usually it takes time, consistency, but this group has just grown really fast and it’s actually going really well,” she said.

“Definitely huge satisfaction, seeing that happening on such a large scale in a gym that was empty at 4:00am before.”



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