Body & Fitness

Les Mills creative director Diane Archer Mills on family, fun and fitness

A third generation leader of the Les Mills empire, Diana Archer Mills is no stranger to fitness and global success. She shares her wellness philosophy.

It’s fair to say the fitness industry is in Diana Archer Mills’ blood. The 32-year-old granddaughter of gym tycoon and four-time Olympian Les Mills Snr was brought into the gym when she was just two days old and has since spent most of her life surrounded by dumbbells and treadmills.

As creative director at Les Mills, she works out for up to four hours a day as part of her job; jets all over the world to host Les Mills live events, teaching classes to thousands of people at a time; and, to top it all off, is a mother to four children all under the age of nine.

Les Mills turned 50 this year, and the milestone was celebrated at a global summit in Punta Umbria in the south of Spain.

Since its inception, the company has gone from one tiny gym in central Auckland to 21 different programmes licensed in 20,000 clubs (and counting) around the world, with a team of 140,000 specifically trained instructors delivering group fitness classes to more than six million people a week.

The gym started under the leadership of Les Mills Snr in 1968 and the mantle was taken up by his son, Phillip – Diana’s father.

Today, it’s the next generation of Mills’ who will be paving the way for the company’s future, with Diana and her brother, Les Jnr, also a creative director, taking on the challenge of keeping Les Mills a global success story.

Last year Les Mills raised a hugely impressive $1.49 million for UNICEF. If that’s anything to go by, there’ll no doubt be plenty more successes under Diana’s watch.

Diana’s Instagram boasts plenty of sporty shots, as well as her equipment and the Les Mills’ “tribe”.

When we meet at a central Auckland café, Diana’s in her activewear and full of energy, as one would expect from someone who’s dedicated her life to fitness.

An advocate of strength training for women, she says strong is the new skinny – but her relationship with her body has changed dramatically over the years.

As a 32-year-old, she feels like she’s coming to a place of understanding about what her body needs and should be doing – without societal pressures being as much of a factor.

Growing up, she was incredibly sporty, loved competition, and did ballet. From a very young age Phillip would take Diana and Les Jnr to the track, run with them and jump hurdles. Les Snr, now 83, won 24 national titles for shot and discus in his glory days, and was interested in Diana pursuing a career as a discus thrower; when she was 14 she competed for Auckland and placed third.

“I was this scrawny little hipster, and he said, ‘We’re going to start building you up.’ I was like, ‘Nope, I’m going to keep dancing. Dancing is good for me.'”

Today, dance is still a huge passion of Diana’s. It’s how she met her husband, Gandalf Archer Mills – who was once a Britney Spears’ back-up dancer – while still at high school. Gandalf, 38, is the head of dance at Les Mills, and started teaching it when he was just 13.

“I was going to hip-hop classes at City Dance with this incredible teacher, and that’s where it began and where I became passionate about it, through Gandalf teaching me.”

The couple have four children: Geronimo, nine – Gandalf’s son from an earlier relationship – Maximilien, seven, Lucksonbloom, three, and Luna, two. With three boys, plus “the feistiest girl on the planet”, it’s fair to say the household is full of chaos. But Diana says they love it.

“It’s this continuous gloriously chaotic balancing act. My husband and I revel in chaos. We just make it work because it’s worth making it work.”

She once toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher, having loved classics and philosophy at university. But now that Les Mills has partnered with UNICEF, she wouldn’t consider doing anything else.

Last year, the organisations joined together to create Workout for Water, raising money to build water pumps and provide clean drinking water. Next year’s Workout for Water is aiming to largely fund solar-powered water pumps, as well as a hygienic system throughout China.

“It was the most remarkable thing the company’s ever participated in. The bigger this company grows, the more we get to work with companies like UNICEF, and the more profound things we can actually do for the planet. My remarkable luck being born into this family means I get to fight for what I truly believe in the world. It’s the most powerful thing I can do to help the planet, so why would I ever pursue anything else?”

Diana recently returned from San Diego where she was teaching classes as part of the live events Les Mills hosts around the world alongside Reebok, the gym’s long-time partner.

The companies partnered to create fitness experiences that often run alongside fitness conventions. Les Mills held one of its global summits in Slovenia, and Diana says it’s the most beautiful country she’s been to for work.

“We stayed in this huge convention centre high on a cliff. You could look across and see Croatia. It was divine – a stunning little fishing village with this church on a hill a mile down the road.

We got to meet instructors and trainers from around the world and connect with them one-on-one. People who haven’t tried the product came and hard-core fans were inspired even more.”

Group fitness classes are nothing new to Diana – she’s been going to them since she was a teenager, apprenticing Phillip in his creative director role. The family celebrated Les Mills’ 50-year milestone this year with the entire “tribe”.

Les Jnr and Diana spoke at the Wellington celebration, and Diana also attended and spoke at a global summit in Punta Umbria. The company may be fronted by the third generation but Diana says it’s not about them.

“This is about the people who’ve been there for 50 years and those of us who will be here for the next 50, the thousands of instructors who are changing people’s lives each day and making the 50-year anniversary possible, and celebrating the fact that all of the incredible young people are going to take us to the next 50.”

Overseas she does a lot more public speaking, but Diana has kept a fairly low profile in New Zealand. It’s been said she’s better known outside New Zealand than in her own country.

“I’m not a socialite. My brother had a bit of a high-social profile; I’m a bit more internal, quiet and introverted. And I had my first child really young, at 25.”

Those kids, says Diana, keep her young. They dance a lot at home, bounce on the trampoline, and often on the weekends Diana will find herself impersonating a frog to entertain the four children.

“It’s one of my favourites. You jump for five minutes like a HIIT workout. It’s seriously intense.”

The frog impersonation was also a horse for a time, but the kids are big on dinosaurs at the moment, so it’s currently a velociraptor.

“Our eldest gave me the crown of the best velociraptor in the family. Playing with my kids keeps it fun.”

While Gandalf works long hours, occasionally he gets large blocks of time off, which helps when there’s lots of kids to look after. Helping with the children is a real family affair – when Diana was pregnant with Luna, her mother-in-law retired to help out, and has the brood during the day on weekdays.

“We make it work. I’m incredibly lucky extended family members are involved. Right now my seven-year-old is down at the office with who knows – it could be my brother, mother or husband. We’d rather have it be chaotic and family based.”

She spends time with Gandalf whenever she gets the chance, but spare time is a rarity. All three Mills’ generations are notorious for their ‘sleep when you’re dead’ attitude. It’s a trait Diana’s inherited; as well as founding the gym, Les Snr served as mayor of Auckland City for eight years.

“It was my grandmother Colleen who was very hands-on and I deeply respect that because it allowed my mother to continue to pursue her career as a medical doctor. It was still very patriarchal in that household, in that men would work and anything to do with the grand-children, Nanny would take care of. We stayed there a lot with my grandmother.”

During the weekends, Diana works out for an hour and a half on Saturdays, and half an hour on Sundays.

On weekdays, it can be anything from two to four hours of exercise each day, mostly as part of her work. But even at those times when paperwork takes precedence over a workout, she’ll make sure she’s still exercising.

“I have to work out hard so when I go back I haven’t lost the strength and cardiovascular ability to do so.”

Her passion for health extends to the kitchen too. A lover of cooking, Diana tries to eat three meals a day, and rarely deviates from her routine. She’ll have one meal based around eggs, one based around orange and red vegetables with some protein, and one based around greens.

Breakfast will be three eggs with some paleo toast, cauliflower toast, or an omelette. For lunch it could be salad with avocado, and lots of broccoli and pumpkin. She might have brown rice as well.

Her ideal dinner is a fillet of salmon on a raw beetroot and carrot salad, and blueberries with ‘nice cream’ or raw honey with coconut yoghurt for dessert.

“I call it the superfood diet. I only want to eat what’s deeply nourishing for my body. I tend to avoid red meat as my stomach doesn’t like it very much.”

With her creative director role encompassing the popular weights-based Body Pump, it’s no surprise she has strong views on the perception, especially from women, that strength training will make women aesthetically unappealing.

“I understand it’s not societally acceptable when finding a mate for a woman to have enormous bulging shoulders and biceps. The fact is that strength training doesn’t do that to a female’s body unless she’s trying to do that. If you’re eating dramatically more than you should, you’re going to bulk up, gain larger muscles and feed those muscles when you strength train. But if you’re eating what your body needs, strength training can only benefit a woman’s body. We have to go through so much more than a male’s body if we choose to have children. Strengthening, especially around our joints and smaller muscles as we age, is so deeply beneficial for us. Cardio is also going to play an important role – keep your fitness up to keep you feeling fantastic – we want that as well. But strength is the basis. Muscles are the building blocks of our bodies. How much better are you going to be able to perform if you have strong feet and ankles, beautiful quads and big glutes? A strong core and posture is going to keep us safer and healthier, allowing us to perform better in everything we do. It’s not cardio that does that, it’s strength training.”

Diana wants women to think about health, rather than the way they look. “The bizarre desire to diminish women and make us smaller and weaker is this horribly prevalent issue we haven’t managed to stomp out yet.”

“I understand gyms are traditionally driven by aesthetics. Driven by, ‘You need to look good so you need to give your money to us,'” she adds.

“I’d rather you find something you’re passionate about. If you love walking and doing pushups in a park, get addicted to it. Nourish your beautiful body – whatever shape it is, whatever size you are – this incredible tool and weapon you’ve been given to live this life in. Take care of it.”

She encourages anyone who wants to try something new to just give it a go.

“Give up on being afraid; know that it’s not all supermodels at the gym. There are all shapes and sizes. Just say f**k it and give it a try, seriously. Don’t be scared; everyone looks like a dick when they start something. If you’re passionate and love something, you’re going to wake up and be excited to do it.”

Diana’s tips for women wanting to live healthier lives

  • Nourish your body

Eat what your body needs, not what your mind wants. Don’t eat for your mind.

  • Challenge yourself

Try a different workout every week for a month. This can help you find somethng you love.

  • Get out in nature

This is especially important if you live in the city. Try to be outside as much as possible, even if it’s just walking to work. It’s so much better because it connects you to the world, rather than screens.

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