Story: Sports and leisure

Page 3. Informal sports

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In the early 2000s, 68% of New Zealand adults and children aged over five spent at least 2.5 hours a week in physical activity. More time was spent in self-directed physical activity than in organised competitive sports. At the simplest level, this took the form of walking to work or jogging through suburban streets. In 2000, 72% of New Zealanders walked for exercise or enjoyment during the year.

Play time

Kiwi kids love to get physical. Almost all boys aged 5 to 15 (93%) and nearly as many girls (91%) take part in sport and active leisure. During school hours, more girls (70%) than boys (67%) are involved in such pursuits.

The bush

The proximity of bush and hills to New Zealand’s major population centres has encouraged a tradition of walking and tramping in national and forest parks. An extensive network of tracks and huts, many maintained by the Department of Conservation, has encouraged people to venture into the hills. Some of the walks, such as the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, the Milford Track and the Heaphy Track, have been given ‘great walk’ status and attract thousands of international visitors. Other New Zealanders go into the mountains to hunt pigs, deer and goats. In wild areas close to cities, mountain-biking became popular in the 1990s.


The number of serious mountaineers is smaller, and until the 1930s many were foreign visitors led by professional guides. Since then New Zealand mountaineers have conquered all of the country’s major peaks. After the Second World War, skiing also attracted people into the mountains, and by 2000 the country had 13 commercial ski areas and 11 club fields. Snowboarding was almost as popular as skiing.

Water sports

Water is another attraction for the active New Zealander. For much of the 20th century the beach was a favourite place of relaxation and physical activity, and the classic setting for the summer holiday. Beach recreation takes many forms – from lazing in the sun and playing informal beach cricket to swimming, boogie boarding, surfing and windsurfing.

The beach also attracts surfcasters, snorkellers and divers. Areas such as the Bay of Islands and Mercury Bay have become world-famous for deep-sea fishing. Many New Zealanders fish from boats.

There are 270 public swimming pools in the country – nearly every town has one, and about 95% of New Zealanders can swim. Most children are given swimming lessons at primary school and about 15% belong to one of the 240 swimming clubs. For adults, swimming is mainly a leisure activity; only 7% belong to a club and 3% swim competitively.

Lakes and rivers are also sites for swimming and water sports such as waterskiing, kayaking and yachting. Fishing for rainbow or brown trout has achieved popularity worldwide, especially since huge trout were caught in Lake Taupō in the early 20th century. The South Island’s east coast rivers offer salmon fishing, while netting whitebait is another authentic Kiwi pastime. In 2000 a quarter of adult New Zealanders (more men than women) had fished during the year.


Exercise or aerobic classes in commercial gyms have also become important for New Zealand city-dwellers, with over a quarter of New Zealanders attending these during the year.

Extreme sports

In the 1980s a variety of ‘extreme’ sports emerged or became more popular – rafting, kayaking, jet boating, mountain biking, snowboarding, skateboarding, mountain climbing, gliding, paragliding and skydiving. Visitors from around the globe are attracted by the prospect of ‘adventure tourism’ in scenic locations. They test their nerves with bungy jumping, sky jumping and zorbing (rolling down hills strapped inside an inflatable plastic sphere).

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Sports and leisure - Informal sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Sep 2015