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Q&A: Kayla Itsines on her fitness empire, and her surprisingly simple workout regime

With a physique clearly sculpted over years of hard work, and Instagram fame most celebrities struggle to achieve themselves, we expected Kayla Itsines to rush through this interview and get it over and done with. Instead, she engaged in one of the most insightful discussions about women and fitness — both together and separately — and it’s easy to see why she’s far from being just a pretty face who coincidentally found fame in a market seldom tapped on, back when she started in 2009.

Almost a decade later and she’s now an influential role model to millions (she has 9.6 million followers on Instagram) and then some, through her famous Bikini Body Guide (BBG) and Sweat programmes, Itsines has built a global fitness empire for herself. Perhaps the most intriguing part is that the Adelaide native is fully dedicated to empowering women, despite a massive billion-dollar industry for the other gender. 

In Singapore for the first time thanks to Fitness Fest by AIA 2018, Itsines led a lucky group though one of her famous boot camps, and then stayed for a meet and greet session after. Unsurprisingly, she says that’s her favourite part of touring. 

kayla itsines
Kayla Itsines in Singapore.

But more than the charisma, Itsines is extremely relatable. Like everyone, she doesn’t look forward to going to the gym, which explains her 20-minute, in-and-out concept exercise videos. When she can’t find the motivation, she takes a 30-minute stroll on the treadmill while watching Netflix. She enjoys the sinful Greek cakes her grandmother makes, and feels the most contented when she’s just hanging out with her family. 

Here, she lets us in on the highlights of her career, her secrets to a perfectly toned body, and why she occasionally hits the gym at three in the morning.

You started the BBG program when you realised you wanted to help people beyond your clients. How has that journey been for you so far?

It’s been incredible, being able to help so many women around the world has been such a blessing. It’s been really hard and there has been a lot of tears — when I say tears, I mean happy tears — and emotions, but it’s all worth it. It’s hard hearing these women tell their stories from around the world because some of them have been through a lot, and it’s been very rewarding to know I’ve made a difference.

How did your fitness journey begin?

I received my personal training certificate in 2009 and signed up at a women’s only personal training center after. It wasn’t long before I started mobile personal training, where I’d go to people’s houses to train them. I then opened my own studio after.

Kayla Itsines at the gym.
Did you expect it to become such a big phenomenon?

No. I never went out with the intention of thinking that this was going to be the biggest programme in the world. I just wanted to help people, and then it started growing organically. It then morphed into a business when we started running the bootcamp and world tours. 

How has the programme evolved over the years? Do you see more emphasis on nutrition or workouts in your programme now?

It started off being a workout video guide with a nutrition PDF attached to it. which then evolved into the Sweat app that comes with a nutrition planner. Now, it caters to women all over the world with eating preferences, from Indian and pescatarian to vegan and even ovo-vegetarian. The workouts have also evolved, and we’re able to show women alternative exercises, so it’s come a long way now. 

Do you work closely with nutritionists to develop these programmes? And do you find it hard to do that, considering how some cuisines are quite unhealthy by nature?

Yes, everything we do is in-house, so I’m able to go over and sit down with the nutritionist and talk about what I want to achieve. So if someone says that we’re not really catering to the Indian market, I’ll go to her and work out a menu that might better suit them.

It’s hard, but we have an amazing team that always figures out how to make the food in a healthier way. You can eat a burger at a fast food joint, or you can choose to make the burger at home yourself, so we always encourage going for the better options available. 

Do you follow the guide yourself?

The nutrition guide is what it is — it’s just a guide, so you can tweak it however you want. I don’t follow it to a tee, and I don’t think anyone does. People might change something from lunch or dinner, or not follow the breakfast plan, and that’s fine. When people start their fitness journey, they think they have to only have plain rice, chicken and broccoli, or cut bread and only have eggs in the morning. The app allows you to have toast, for example, so it liberates people a bit.

It’s not all boiled chicken and broccoli on Itsines’ list. Toast and a good dose of peanut butter are recommended for breakfast.
What is a typical day in your life like?

It’s always changing, especially if I’m touring, but a day in Adelaide would be me getting up early and going for a walk before having breakfast. I’ll then take my dogs to the dog park, and go see my family after — and all this is before 8am! Then I’ll start working on content. I’ll either fly to the office in Sydney or Melbourne or go to our studios.

Itsines and her dogs Ace and Junior.
You’re always on the go, how do you keep fit while travelling?

My priority when I travel is to drink lots of water. If you usually have two to three litres a day, have a little bit more when you’re overseas. Nap when you can to regulate your body clock, and choose really healthy foods for the first few days. People usually want to try every local cuisine the minute they arrive but give your body time to adapt first — don’t jump into eating fast food or even something wacky.

Do you still hit the gym when you’re overseas?

I always make sure every hotel that I stay at has a gym. I won’t stay there if it doesn’t. If I’m jetlagged and get up at 3am, I’ll head down to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes and go back to sleep again, so at least I’ve done something for the day. I try to walk around the area as much as possible too.

What does your personal fitness routine look like now?

I follow the Sweat Out program to a tee. I’m doing BBG Stronger at the moment, and I work out three to four times a week for half an hour and take a half hour walk on the treadmill six times a week. I usually do 5.5mph on the treadmill which is quite slow (laughs) and watch something on Netflix throughout.

How do you get over fitness plateaus?

You always have to try to push your body a little bit more, and that is what’s good about Sweat Out, because it does it for you. You won’t realise that your body is going a little bit faster and you’re getting stronger, and I think making it time-based at seven minutes helps you push yourself a little bit more. So some people may say that they can only get through one lap of the four exercises in seven minutes, but they find themselves going into two or three laps after a while. By the time they’ve peak, we’ve released another programme, so there’s always different options to chop and change from.

In terms of mindset, do the minimum when you have zero motivation. Don’t do nothing.

What would you change about the fitness industry now?

The first thing I would change — and I’ve noticed this a lot in Asian countries — is that women ask questions like how to get rid of a certain body flaw or how to achieve a slimmer face, and they’ll point at something they don’t like. You’ll need to exercise your body as a whole to achieve your desired figure.

I’d also like to debunk the myth that women have to cut out carbs, and the notion that real women should look and behave a certain way. All women are real women, regardless of what they look like.

The fitness industry is a male dominated one. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

I think we really disrupted the industry with the BBG. There was nothing back in the day that was made specifically for women. It was always a programme for men, altered for women. But I didn’t want to do that. A lot of people are reluctant to cut out men, because they make such a huge market. I’ve never trained them and I’ve always focused on women, so I created one that was targeted at women.

As the first trainer in the market to focus on women, Itsines’ empire has grown enormously since she started in 2009.
What’s your proudest moment yet?

Creating the community is by far my proudest moment. Seeing the women in my programme encourage and wanting to help each other makes me feel the best, which is why the meet-and-greet sessions after boot camps are my favourite. I sometimes wish I could go straight to the meet-and-greet sessions without doing the boot camps!

The famous BBG Bootcamp.
Q&A: Kayla Itsines on her fitness empire, and her surprisingly simple workout regime

Shatricia Nair

Managing Editor

Shatricia Nair has a passion for motoring, beauty, and wellness, and is perpetually knee-deep in the world of V8s, retinols, and latest fitness trends. She has nine years of experience writing for digital media, and her bylines have appeared in Prestige, and Augustman. She'll do (almost) anything for good chocolate chip cookies.

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