Brooke Tuatao sets her alarm for a 3.50am wake up. She lives in a small apartment with husband, Siaosi, and their 16-year-old daughter, Taleia, above a Mount Smart warehouse they’ve recently converted into a gym.
Tuatao is founder of FITmumz female-only fitness programmes, and the owner of two Auckland gyms. And by 4.30am, she’s opened the doors to prepare for the first session at 5.
“I like to make sure that I’m very awake when I’m greeting people as they arrive. Those early morning girls are ‘on’,” Tuatao says. “They’re here to work, and they’re very consistent. They know that it’s their time and if they don’t get it done, they probably won’t train that day.
“Some of them go straight to work afterwards and others go home so their partners can go to work, and they can get their kids ready for school.”
She knows they’re sacrificing sleep to work out and she always reminds them: “Don’t get up for nothing. You got up this early so make it worth it.” She feels a responsibility to ensure she’s providing them with the best session possible every time.
As a young mum, she came to understand the important role fitness can play in women’s lives. Her own journey sparked a successful business helping women to not only make physical change, but face their wellbeing issues, too.
Tuatoa understands only too well the dynamics of family life. The eldest daughter of 10 children, she was born in Auckland and raised in Tauranga. Her mother is New Zealand European and her father, Samoan German.
She and all her siblings were home-schooled following a Christian education curriculum and she’s continued this home-schooling Taleia.
“Being part of a big family, we were always brought up to help. We didn’t get pocket money and I remember getting up early in the morning and cooking a big pot of porridge, ironing Dad’s shirts, and making his lunch,” Tuatao says.
She attributes her enterprising spirit and determination to that family work ethic and believes as home-schooled kids, they had more freedom to be creative.
“I used to make Christmas cards and cakes and sell them around the neighbourhood. I even had my own kids clothing line, buying second-hand clothes and reselling them with my own label on it,” Tuatao says.
“I was offered a babysitting job, but at 12, I was too young, so I made my older brother come with me.”
At 13, she’d ride her BMX across town to work at a health food store filling bags of nuts and seeds. “When I got paid, I’d ride my bike to the bank. With just those few hours a week, by the time I was 15, I’d saved enough to buy my first car.”
In hindsight, Tuatao realises she’d always had a head for business, but certainly had no idea that almost 30 years later she’d be running her own successful company with two gyms. “I never wanted the responsibility of being a boss. I wanted to be a schoolteacher, working with children in less developed countries,” she says.
Tuatao was always interested in health and fitness and playing sport. She did gymnastics from an early age. At 18, she took up competitive body building, and started working at large gyms.
But Tuatoa became disillusioned with the individual focus of body building and she finished her competition days on a high note, winning gold at the Auckland champs in 2012.
These days, she prefers competing in a team at crossfit competitions, where she’s more interested in challenging herself and working to support others in the team. “Being in a team is super cool – and challenging being out on the floor by yourself, especially in an international environment,” Tuatao says.
During her last year of studying for a bachelor of education, Tuatao fell pregnant with her daughter. It was then she started to understand the difference it makes for women to keep fit with a partner and child to consider. When she graduated, she started working as a nanny and only took jobs where Taleia could go with her.
The idea of starting fitness classes for women came to her because she was documenting her own journey of fitness on social media (she has 34,000 followers on Instagram) and had many women asking her for ideas and help about training and nutrition.
“This just grew and grew,” she says. “I found myself doing as much as I could to help them and I realised I wanted to help more women.”
Starting FITmumz classes in The Gardens School hall in Manurewa in 2013, Tuatao wanted it to be a place where mums could bring their kids.
“At first it was a handful of women, but soon, there were 50 or 60 at some classes,” she says. Increasing to other locations eventually meant Tuatao had to give up other work to concentrate on the business fulltime.
In 2014, the school advised they were bulldozing the hall that was FITmumz main location. At the same time, the Tuatao aiga’s landlord decided to sell their house and they needed to move.
It was decision time. “I had a five-year plan and investing in our own place when I didn’t have a regular income seemed much too soon and scary,” Tuatao says.
But only one year after starting FITmumz, the couple took a leap of faith, left their home, and leased a building in Manukau which became their first official training facility and home.
The business continued to flourish. By 2015, Siaosi, a sports coach, became increasingly involved in the growing business.
Tuatao always reminds women when they walk through the FITmumz door, it doesn’t mean magic will come over them and they’ll automatically start eating better and getting fit. The important thing, she says, is to make themselves a priority.
“Often women sign up with the hope of physical change, but they’re facing wellbeing issues too. Many have significant weight issues and a defeatist attitude,” she says.
“They say ‘no, I can’t do that; I’m not disciplined enough; I don’t have the drive that you have; I don’t have the motivation, the inspiration.’ The challenge is to not only teach them to use the tools we provide, but to build their confidence and knowledge so they continue to make good decisions for themselves and their family, forever.”
Tuatao considers everyone individually, looks at their specific circumstances to understand who they are before devising a nutrition and training programme for them.
“It’s so important when a woman comes to me for help, I don’t just give an immediate answer, but try and look deeper into why they do what they do,” she says.
“I start right back at when they were kids to help understand why they choose what they do,” she says. “Whether they’re happy, sad or angry, it’s almost like food becomes a drug. It’s not just about helping to reverse those things, but to understand why we do them.”
Brooke Tuatao and daughter, Taleia, run fitness classes at McAuley High School in Ōtāhuhu.
The FITmumz programme is different from others, Tuatao explains – it’s not a conventional gym, and not solely CrossFit either, but a combination with an emphasis on strength and conditioning.
“You do cardio for health reasons, not just to lose weight, and you do weight training for safety not just to build muscle. This is important for all age groups including the over 50s,” she says. “You don’t need to be chucking around all the bars and heavy weights, but you do need to be doing some form of resistance training.”
Another point of difference with FITmumz is the annual ‘Transform’ programme held over winter months to encourage women to keep training. “The main reason I created it is for that accountability over the cold season,” Tuatoa says.
On completing ‘Transform’, women get to celebrate their personal achievements – walking the stage to show their families and friends how the hard work and sacrifices they’ve put in over the previous months have paid off.
“This is not about competing with others. Everyone’s journey is unique, and people start at all different levels,” Tuatao says.
Tuatao wanted the gyms to be not only for mums, but somewhere families can be together. Both their Manukau and Mount Smart training facilities have a dedicated space for children. “Many of the kids have been coming along since they were babies,” Tuatao says.
Now those kids can train too – Tuatao adding FITkidz, which provides age-appropriate fitness training, mostly for the children of members. They’ve also expanded to FITcomm, which are sessions for both men and women.
The recent move to Mount Smart has given the Tuataos a home where they’re finally able to unpack boxes they put in storage eight years ago. “At 16, Taleia finally got a bedroom to herself. It’s the first time in years we’ve had our own bathroom, separate to the gym,” Tuatao says.
Living onsite at their gyms, usually sharing one bedroom and using the gym’s bathroom facilities was tough. Tuatao has realised the dream of owning a home separate from the gym may never happen, but she’s comfortable with that. “Building our own community facility is a long-term goal and would mean so much more than owning a house,” she says.
From those humble beginnings as a one-woman band, Tuatao is very much still at the helm.
With almost 60 classes a week, the two training facilities have a membership of more than 500. They now have 20-plus trained coaches, and all have come through the FITmumz or FITcomm programme. Tuatao says they understands the philosophy of family and the training of the whole person.
“A huge amount of what I learned at teachers training college I use now,” she says, with many of their coaches also educators.
FITmumz and FITcomm now have an online programme in New Zealand, which will soon be available internationally.
They’ve come a long way since launching FITmumz nine years ago, with a few pieces of equipment Tuatao lifted in and out of her car for every session in the school hall.
“Every day I think we are so blessed to do what we do because we don’t have long here, you know?” she says. “And the more people we can help to live a quality life, I don’t think there’s anything better than that,” she says.
Tuatoa believes the riches come from seeing women succeed. “I’ve seen whole families changed and transformed just because the mum has prioritised herself. That’s so huge,” she says. “When we personally go through challenging times, I’m reminded that these are the things that are important. It makes it all worth it.”