Levi Armstrong with basketball

A fitness gang fighting obesity – Patu Aotearoa


The Patu concept is a national social franchise model for a group exercise programme designed for Māori and Pasifika.

When Levi Armstrong says Patu Aotearoa is a gang, he knows what he’s talking about – he grew up around gang members, with his father and uncles in the Hastings Mongrel Mob.

“You can’t separate yourself from your whānau. It’s not great being labelled as a gang affiliate because we have family members in gangs, but we know we’re making a difference.”

And that difference, Levi says, is this gang is about fighting obesity through health and fitness.

Levi says it’s hard for people to understand gangs if you haven’t been part of it. His own father joined a gang when he was 16.

“My dad had nothing and was looking for a group of mates. And that’s what we’re trying to create at Patu – an alternative brotherhood for rangitahi (youth) who are looking for a family.

“Patu is our own gang, with our own patch, our own clubs around the motu (island), but without the alcohol, drugs and crime.”

Levi worked at a timber mill after school and started slipping down a pathway to trouble.

“I was hanging with the wrong crowd and getting into drugs. When my first son was born, it helped me realise I wanted more.”

He started a degree in sports and recreation at the Eastern Institute of Technology at the age of 20.

“My daughter was born in my third year so I was studying and working part-time and being a dad – it was a lot of work.”

Levi says it wasn’t until his last semester of his third year of study that he found what he wanted to focus on – Māori health.

“Through my studies and my experience working at a gym, I identified where the gap was, where there was the most need. I was shocked at the health inequities Māori and Pacific Island people face. We started trialling our approach with whānau coming into the gym straightaway and got positive responses.”

Lee Waerea is an ex-gang member who is turning around his life

Lee Waerea is an ex-gang member who is turning around his life

Along with Jackson Waerea and Kia Diamond, the team started as a limited liability company but came across other organisations operating as charitable trusts and accessing grants to do similar work. Levi found a paper on social enterprise and tracked down Ākina.

Josh Whatarau is one of the Patu trainers and is studying for a Degree in Sports and Recreation

Josh Whatarau is one of the Patu trainers and is studying for a Degree in Sports and Recreation

“Ākina was running a social enterprise workshop in Gisborne. We travelled up to see if we fitted in and loved it. Next we applied for Launchpad and attended the warm-ups in Wellington – we were sure we were on to something good.”

“Now I feel like I’m advocating for social enterprise all the time.”

Patu won the People’s Choice award at the 2015 Launchpad programme, Ākina’s social enterprise accelerator programme, and now has gyms in Napier, Hastings and Wairoa, with a site opening in Kaikohe in June. Patu is also mobile and visits schools, marae and workplaces.

Levi co-authored a report in the New Zealand Population Health Congress 2014 proceedings, which included quotes from participants. One quote sums it up: “It’s just so encouraging, you feel comfortable, just like at home. We don’t see each other as just gym members; we see each other as whānau.”

“Your typical Patu person is an average Joe. Some have never been to a gym before or haven’t exercised in the past 20 years. We offer motivation and support in a comfy environmental – there is no lycra!”

Levi says while getting fit and active brings people in the door, Patu is more of an urban marae than a gym and offers budgeting and nutrition advice as well as other support.

“We’ve set up a health indicator tool called the ‘meke meter’ that helps us get a better understanding of someone’s overall mental, social and physical health. We ask questions about motivation and self-image as well as collecting data like blood pressure, weight and percentage fat, then measure it again after 12 weeks to identify where they’ve improved.”

One area that makes a big impact overall is financial literacy as it connects to being able to make healthy eating choices, says Levi.

The team always wanted to create a social atmosphere with positive male Māori role models. He says some people are doing things they never though they could – joining sports teams, joining the workforce, no longer committing crimes.

“Seeing the smiles on the faces of your own whānau, seeing them achieve their goals, seeing the camaraderie and sense of belonging – that’s the real buzz.”

Levi says they are even taking their approach to gang members, working with leaders in gangs.

“Gang members are joining Patu and are getting jobs. We want to support young o
“We want to scale up more efficiently so we’re creating a Patu accelerator and looking New Zealand-wide. We’re aiming to run a mini Launchpad with eight participants over the next six to 12 months with us supporting them.”

Levi says it’s a privilege and an honour to do this work.

Patu is changing lives, including their own.


Established in2012
Operating ModelLimited liability company
Number employed14
Annual turnover$123k (2015) – predicted to double in 2016
  • 2015 winners of the People’s Choice award in the Launchpad programme
  • 1,500 whānau members engaged in Patu in Hawke’s Bay
  • Average weight loss over 12 weeks is 5-6kg
  • A Te Puni Kōkiri 2014 evaluation report stated “Patu is achieving some outstanding results in terms of positive life changes for participants”
  • 2016 winners of the Sports Hawkes Bay SBS Bank Innovation in Sport and Recreation award.