ACT News

Canberra grandmother Patti Wilkins dumps politics to become personal trainer

When Patti Wilkins worked long hours inside Parliament House, it made her sick.

No, it wasn't the job of sorting through the personal mail of then Labor Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard that caused her to feel unwell – although the tenor of some correspondence was admittedly disturbing – it was the 14-hour days spent hunched over a desk with little access to sunlight and precious few chances for exercise.

Patti Wilkins leads the morning boot camp at the Australian War Memorial.
Patti Wilkins leads the morning boot camp at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Karleen Minney

Ms Wilkins has now cast off more than a decade of political life in order to follow her true passion – fitness.

The 65-year-old grandmother of two is in the peak of physical condition, having crafted a personal training career around her belief that fresh air and exercise is essential for happy, healthy human bodies.

The 65-year-old grandmother of two still has the energy to leap out of bed.
The 65-year-old grandmother of two still has the energy to leap out of bed. Photo: Karleen Minney

You can find her most mornings running boot camps at the crack of dawn around Canberra's inner north.

But unlike those stereotypical sculpted generation-Y trainers, Ms Wilkins says she brings some "empathy and life experience" to her task of encouraging clients from all walks of life to find a fitter way forward.

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"I never shout and I never shame. I reward effort and I try and encourage people to give as much as they can … Sometimes some of my boot camp group complain I might be a bit mean, but I think they are joking."

Ms Wilkins first earned her personal training qualifications after having two children and she spent a large part of her adult life managing fitness centres. A decision to follow her son to Canberra when he enrolled in the Australian National University about 15 years ago brought her from Victoria.

Then, a chance job with the ALP National Secretariat thrust her into Canberra's political world. She was offered a staff job with Labor senator John Faulkner, which then led to positions with Kim Beazley, Mark Latham, Rudd and Gillard.

But Ms Wilkins said the atmosphere of Parliament House, with its relentless electoral cycle, adrenaline soaked-corridors and adversarial culture were not conducive to a relaxed or balanced life.

Patti Wilkins shows what she's made of.
Patti Wilkins shows what she's made of.  Photo: Karleen Minney

It took a bout of food poisoning around the time of the 2004 election campaign to prove to Ms Wilkins how essential it was to find balance and take care of herself.

With no time to rest or recover, Ms Wilkins developed an inflammatory bowel disease and reactive arthritis in her joints. Her weight dropped to 42 kilograms and she was in constant pain with the prospect of having to have a colostomy.

Instead, she turned to meditation, natural therapies and looking at her future beyond political life.

By 2011 she was ready to run her own business Bodyrite, and she now has about 50 clients.

While she bounds out of bed at 5am, Ms Wilkins understands it can be a stretch for those of her clients who work demanding hours and balance family duties.

 "I understand how busy everyone is these days and I always recommend the early start because it is such an invigorating way to begin the day – it refreshes and energises you for what's ahead, and once it is done in the morning, you don't need to worry about it for the rest of the day."

Canberra winters, are, admittedly an added burden.

But Ms Wilkins proudly admits that this year when she offered her Corroboree Park boot camp clients the option of training indoors, they committed to wearing gloves and beanies and moved their activities to the concrete and wind break of the Ainslie shops.

It admittedly wasn't that much warmer, but after 10 minutes of solid exercise, she happily reports that the layers usually start coming off.

"I should add that we didn't have anyone dropping out of the camp or off with sickness this winter either," she laughs.

From high-flying executives wanting to build muscle and sweat, to mothers wanting to focus on their own health, relaxation and meditation, to retirees wanting to keep gently active for as long as they can, Ms Wilkins works with a wide range of abilities. She also gives back.

She voluntarily trained a group to take on a 55-kilometre walk last year for the Fred Hollows Foundation, raising $20,000, and provides free fitness advice for some elderly clients who cannot afford to sign up to training.

Ms Wilkins herself is testament to the phrase 'use it or lose it' in that she has the muscle tone of a woman half her age and still finds time for the odd competitive event when work commitments allow.

She cannot imagine a time where she won't be physically active. And she firmly believes in the benefits to the mind of exercise.

"I have done some work with the frail elderly and it is alarming to see how quickly people lose function when they stop movement. That is not how I want to go when I go into old age.

"More and more research is being produced which shows that exercise is the best thing for the brain. I do a seniors class on a Monday, and I focus a lot on the brain body connection. I am also a firm believer in the benefits of laughter, so we do a lot of that too."​