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Les Mills

From a small gym in a New Zealand garage to a global phenomenon, Les Mills has revolutionised the fitness industry. Its founder, Leslie ‘Les’ Mills, was a New Zealand athlete with a strong desire to share his passion for fitness with the community. With the help of his son and daughter-in-law, Phillip and Jackie, Les Mills International has become an internationally successful business and changed the face of exercise forever.

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“I thought, I loved sport. I loved gyms. Why not make it a professional part of my life? It became something for everyone.”

Les was a remarkably talented athlete from a young age. He enjoyed a variety of sports – exploring different disciplines from rugby league to weightlifting, sprinting to hurdles – but it was in shot put and discus that he excelled.

He represented New Zealand at every Olympic and Commonwealth Games from 1958 to 1972. Les’s most notable sporting success came from the Commonwealth Games, where he won a gold medal for discus (1966), two silvers for discus (1958, 1970), and one for shot put (1966) and a bronze for shot put (1970).

Alongside his wife Colleen, Les started a gym in their home in Auckland’s Grey Lynn. His motivation was clear: he wanted people to fall in love with fitness and make people fit for life.

What started as a passion project soon grew into a thriving business, and the increased demand saw The Les Mills World of Fitness open in central Auckland in 1968. Talented coaches were employed across a wide range of sports including track and field, weightlifting, martial arts, and gymnastics. The gym’s humble beginning meant it had only one changing room – meaning men and women had access on alternate days.

Les and Colleen’s son, Phillip, worked in the gym as a teenager and became motivated by the gym’s culture. He became an athlete in his own right, representing New Zealand in the 110-metre hurdles at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, and finishing sixth in the 110-metre hurdles and the 400-metre hurdles at the Commonweath Games in Edmonton in 1978.

While Phillip was in the United States on a sports scholarship at UCLA, he stumbled upon group exercise to music during an aerobics class held in a Los Angeles high school hall. He had always had an interest in making exercise fun, and he describes this as his ‘aha’ moment.

When Phillip returned home, he recruited dancers, actors and elite athletes and trained them to showcase their talents on stage, create immersive experiences, and communicate effectively in front of large groups of people. His innovative approach combining his father’s elite athletic sports programmes with group exercises set to the beat of modern music became a huge success, with queues down the street to get into the classes.

Under Phillip’s leadership, the business continued to thrive, leading it to expand into Australia and list on the stock market in 1984. In 1987, it was acquired by an investment company, but the share market crash left Les Mills’ new owners in financial ruin.

Phillip and his wife, Jackie Mills – a doctor and former national gymnast and aerobics champion who he had met through the gym – took back control of the firm, shouldering millions of dollars in debt and selling off the Australian assets to keep the company afloat. Les stepped away from the day-to-day running of the business to pursue local politics and went on to be elected as Mayor of Auckland, a role he held for three terms from 1990 to 1998.

Phillip and Jackie recognised the growing demand for more dynamic and engaging group fitness classes and spent years refining the concept. Drawing from their experience and expertise, they identified the key elements that make an exceptional workout. In 1990, they introduced a new programme that revolutionised the fitness industry: high-energy strength classes incorporating weights. This innovative programme, BODYPUMP, quickly became a global phenomenon.

In 1997, they launched Les Mills International to create a global network of clubs, trainers and instructors who could help bring BODYPUMP to people around the world. It gained a massive following, and within a decade became the most popular group exercise on the planet. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world went online, so did Les Mills. It introduced Les Mills+, an online platform that offers its members science-backed workouts based on its popular classes that they can do anywhere. In 2020, the app was voted the top at-home workout by USA Today.

Phillip and Jackie’s children, Diana and Les Jr, now have senior roles within Les Mills and continue to propel the business forward. It now offers a wide range of fitness programmes, including yoga, cycling, dance and martial arts, and stays at the forefront of exercise trends with a continued dedication to make fitness experiences more accessible.

Les Mills is committed to sustainability, implementing sustainable initiatives and continuously tracking its carbon footprint to minimise its environmental impact. What started in a Grey Lynn garage has grown to a team of 140,000 instructors delivering fitness classes in 21,000 gyms across more than 100 countries and has changed the face of exercise forever. A lot has changed since Les Mills Senior opened his first gym, but one thing that has remained constant is its purpose: to make humans fit for life.

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Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.