Uber Girl at City Fitness

City Fitness gym manager Natalie Gallagher
City Fitness gym manager Natalie Gallagher

Sports achievements on international playing fields paint an unreal picture of New Zealand being a fit, healthy nation.

When Natalie Gallagher, the new City Fitness gym manager in Blenheim, arrived in the country earlier this year she couldn't believe the large number of overweight and obese people.

"It was a shock.

"Most people think New Zealanders are the healthiest people, but actually it's not true at all."

Weight can be lost, though, and Natalie embraces the City Fitness vision of making New Zealand the healthiest nation in the world.

Born in Wales but based in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the past 14 years, Natalie says New Zealand's ideal climate and its varied recreational opportunities make it easy for nearly everyone to enjoy regular exercise.

"Enjoyment", she adds, is the key factor.

"It makes you feel fantastic!"

Exercise can activate endorphins, natural chemicals in the brain that leave people feeling "on top of the world" and generally happier with life, she says.

"And it's very addictive."

She started going to the gym in her teens, inspired by athletes she saw on TV. Already a performance dancer - she does ballet, tap, flamenco and jazz - Natalie was quickly hooked and started training with the Fitness Education Institute (FEI) so she could work as a fitness instructor.

FEI qualifications were followed by advanced studies with the Health Professional Fitness Academy and then she obtained a masters training qualification with the European Institute of Fitness. The biomechanics and cardiovascular training for endurance sports she did with that allowed her set up specialty programmes for pregnant women and people affected by high blood pressure and osteoporosis.

Everyone benefits from regular physical exercise, she says, and she hopes the government's push for improved levels of health will follow the path adopted by many European countries where people are encouraged to take more personal responsibility.

"They're closing the gap between doctors' surgeries and the health clubs.

"Prevention is better than cure."

At the Nuffield Health Centre where she worked in Edinburgh, staff included a general practitioner and a physiotherapist. "So there was a strong link between our members being referred to the doctor, or vice-versa."

People who turn up to City Fitness in Blenheim range from high school students to senior citizens, young mothers and middle-aged men. Visual fitness plans offered to newcomers start with a blood pressure reading, a BMI (body mass index) measure and a list of health questions. A fitness programme and recommended diet is then drawn up and a computer image created of how the person will look six weeks later if the recommendations are followed.

Looking good makes us feel good, believes Natalie, who was one of six national finalists in a 2011 beauty show, Uber Girl.

A friend had asked her to join her as a contestant and it had been a lot of fun. "And it does wonders for your self-esteem ... especially at my age [30 at the time]."

Keeping active also builds self-esteem and Natalie doesn't restrict her exercise routines to the equipment at City Fitness. On Monday evening she joins a Blenheim cycling group, on Tuesdays a running group and on Wednesdays weights resistance training.

"And I'm looking at ... teaching yoga."

The Marlborough Express