Nicola Willis' fitness campaign 'It's okay to put yourself first'

With an election in October, the politician’s put some weights behind her words!

By Wendyl Nissen
National Party deputy leader Nicola Willis started the year taking a hard look at herself and making the decision that if she was going to get through an election year, she needed to get fighting fit.
"These last couple of years have been huge for me," says Nicola. "Late 2021, I stepped up to be the deputy leader and the finance spokesperson, and that comes with a lot more exposure, more work and more hours, which I loved. I was just giving it everything I had, every hour I had, every minute of the day."
But by the end of last year, Nicola wasn't well.
"I had a cough, which just wouldn't go away," she tells. "I just had this trigger go off, which I think a lot of people have. Maybe it was because I'm 42, but I suddenly realised I cannot take my body for granted. My body is fighting back – it is saying, 'Treat me with some respect or I'm not going to let you keep going.'"
Nicola says she was at work coughing all over people for months.
"I knew they were all thinking I had Covid, so I was constantly saying, 'It's just a cough', but then I realised I was sick all the time."
She then "dragged myself to the finishing line" of last year and had a stern talk to herself.
"I said, 'You know what, lady, this year is nowhere near as hard as the years ahead of you are going to be. So you need to shape up.'"
Nicola and National leader Christopher Luxon in 2021.
Nicola knew that meant losing weight and getting fit, but for the first time in her life, it was about getting healthy not smaller.
"I think throughout my life, probably like a lot of women, whenever I've thought about food and exercise, it's been, 'How can I have a smaller dress size? How can I look better? How can I fit those clothes?' I've always been a bigger lady and I've always struggled with my weight," she confides.
"But this time, it wasn't about how I look, it was about how am I going to make myself stronger? And that mindset of approaching it that way has just been so positive for me, it's really worked."
Just months later, Nicola has lost 12kg and is relieved to be back in the healthy weight range.
Nicola credits much of her success to lifting weights, which increased muscle and strength, and not banning any foods from her diet.
"I haven't done it the way I might in the past, where I've not been allowed to eat bread or junk food. I've still done normal things like eating dessert with my kids," she says.
"It's been slower and sustainable, and fitting in with real life so I feel like it's going to keep happening because it hasn't been a torture. I can keep doing this and I think I will lose a bit more."
Nicola and husband Duncan Small have four children – James, 13, Harriet, 11, Reuben, 10, and Gloria, seven – and any time Nicola spends at the gym means time away from the family.
Nicola was inspired by husband Duncan, who fits in workouts with childminding (from left) Reuben, James, Harriet and Gloria.
"It's a genuine trade off," she reflects. "I've always felt that if I spend an hour at the gym, that's an hour I'm not with my kids. That feels really brutal to me because I think I'm selfish for being at the gym – it's in the back of my head.
"I've got this busy job that takes me away from my kids quite a lot, and now I have a free hour and what am I doing with it? Am I putting my vanity and myself ahead of my children, who would love to be curled up and be reading a book with me or cooking with me or walking with me?"
Nicola says she got over that feeling when she realised that not only was she struggling to get her job done at the end of last year, but she would get home exhausted.
"So, I didn't have that kind of patience and joy I wanted to have with my kids because I wasn't healthy enough and vital enough to be who I've always wanted to be for them," she explains. "In my head, I flipped the switch and said to myself, 'I want to be a healthy, energetic mum, so I need to look after my body.'"
Nicola admits she is a high achiever and feels sure many women fall into the trap of wanting to be the best at everything with one exception. "It seems a familiar story to me that we don't prioritise our health over everything else."
So Nicola will find herself working out on the treadmill at 9pm, but no longer thinks she has to "go hard or go home", and end up exhausted and lying in the foetal position afterwards.
"When I started talking to people who do focus on their fitness, there's a lot of research and evidence now that just a long, slow run is really good for your heart. It's really good for your fitness and your endurance. And you know what? The thing with the long, slow run is you can watch TV. I can catch up on whatever interview I didn't watch during the day, I even found myself watching an episode of Succession."
But Nicola also takes time to remember how lucky she is.
"I've made a decision to look after my body, but I have a lot of things that make it easier for me to do that."
For a start, Nicola's parents live just down the road and are available for childcare, but mostly she is thankful to her husband Duncan, who made the decision to work part-time as a consultant when Nicola entered politics.
"He's truly amazing," she enthuses. "He does the lunches and the school run, and he has also inspired me to get healthier because one of the dividends for him becoming the main caregiver is that he decided to go for runs and go to the gym. So I've watched him do that. And he was really conscious that for him, it was about longevity and health."
They are realistic about the fact that in election year, she will be away more but he continues to juggle home life with his paid work.
"My parents are helping out more," she tells. "My dad is in his seventies, but he took James mountain biking over the school holidays. His was an electric mountain bike but he still kept up with my son."
Election year also means being in front of the cameras a lot and so being a bit smaller has helped Nicola expand her wardrobe choices.
When she arrives for her interview with the Weekly, she is wearing a hot-pink Kate Sylvester trouser suit in honour of Pink Shirt Day.
She admits that wearing pant suits is a great idea for someone who can't be bothered shaving her legs, but she says she is also fitting clothes she had in storage.
With more energy, Nicola can give 100 percent to family fun and political campaigning.
"I don't go shopping for new clothes because I can go shopping in my basement," she laughs. "My body has been lots of shapes and sizes. Between each of the kids, I've expanded and shrunk, so I go down to the basement and say, 'I wonder if there's anything else I fit now?'
"I spend a lot of time in meetings with men in navy or charcoal suits, so it's nice to be able to break out a pink suit, but I do get sensitive when people say I'm frumpy or maybe too bright and out there, because I don't want to spend too much time of my day obsessing over that. I'm quite nerdy in that I want people to focus on what I'm saying, not what I'm wearing."
There are also other constraints to being a woman in Parliament, including the much talked about effect of misogyny and negative social media that targets women.
Nicola says when feedback is political, she considers it to be part of the territory – there will be people who disagree with her political views.
"That's what democracy is all about," she asserts. "But sometimes it does get personal like, 'Every time I see her face on TV, I want to slap her' is one that I took a screenshot of and sent it to a WhatsApp group I have with all my friends from university. They are my forever friends. It's a shameless grab for affirmation, but it works."
Nicola says her friends text her back and assure her she is loved.
"My friends don't necessarily always agree with my politics, but they know I'm a good person motivated by the right things. And they remind me of that and tell me I'm a lovely person."
Nicola says her friends are awesome people whose opinions she actually cares about.
"It makes me realise that the anonymous person on Facebook is nowhere near as important as the people who I love, and they love me. That's what it comes down to."
Nicola says the main thing that drives her every day is wanting to be able to look her children in the eye when they're older and say, "I was part of making our country better."
She concludes, "I've had good fortune in my life, and I have this huge opportunity to contribute back and make the place better for others."
  • undefined: Wendyl Nissen

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