Tani Wojcinski is a long way from home, but that hasn’t stopped her from embracing the Southern Tier.

Wojcinski, 32, a native of Kauai, Hawaii, is fitness class instructor at Darwin’s Health Club in Fredonia and former wellness coordinator at the Seneca Nation of Indians’ Cattaraugus Community Center. Earlier this year, she co-led the Seneca Weight Loss Challenge, a program that helped hundreds of people on the Cattaraugus and Allegany territories collectively lose more than a ton of weight – literally.

She has a bachelor of science from Oregon State University and met her husband, Mark, while the two were at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. The couple moved to his native Dunkirk about seven years ago, tried life in Hawaii for a year since then, and returned to the Southern Tier about four years ago.

She loves the area.

“Everybody knows each other,” she says. “It’s a small community and everybody takes care of each other. It feels like home.”

That said, her roots run deep. She has a tattoo of the Hawaiian Islands on her right shoulder, a surfing calendar in her house, and left her Seneca job last month to spend more time with her son, Ikaika, 9, and daughter, Kahea, 8.

“I just needed to step back for a while,” she says. “Along with teaching the fitness classes, I plan on doing wellness and health coaching from home.”

What are you teaching at Darwin’s?

Body Pump, Silver Sneakers and Zumba.

What is Body Pump?

It’s amazing. It’s a resistance training program that’s all set to music in a group fitness format.

What should people know if they’re looking to start a fitness class?

I think starting is one of the hardest things to do, but once you get going, find something that you enjoy and that feeds your soul, something to move with physically. There’s so many different options. Just try a lot of different things and find what fits for you. And keep going. It’s really hard the first two or three classes but after that you start to meet people, you feel more comfortable, you understand the classes.

You talk about sustaining weight loss. How can fitness classes help with that?

They create a social environment. You have people looking for you if you miss a class or two. That’s going to help you keep coming in the door. And if you have a trainer, you have appointments and you have to meet them. Some people hire a trainer just for that. You have to have someone pushing you. And nutrition, you can’t forget that.

Talk about the Weight Loss Challenge, which you led along with Allegany Community Center Wellness Director Andrea John.

It started in January, when everybody’s focusing on resolutions and weight loss tends to be No. 1 on everyone’s list. My director was talking about doing a weight loss contest. I’ve always been a little leery about weight loss contests. I get nervous about the way people are going to lose weight. I’d like it to be sustainable. But I said, ‘Let’s do it. We’ll take the opportunity and see if we can motivate people to change.’ January 14th was the first weigh-in. We thought we would get 10 teams, max. We got 56 teams. Participants lost a ton in the first few weeks. We had 250 people, but still, it was amazing.

Diabetes tends to be a problem across Western New York. How does it play itself out on the Seneca Nation?

We do have a diabetes unit and there is an exercise facility within it that’s medically supervised. They are very busy. They thankfully are doing some good things. Obesity and diabetes go hand-in-hand as co-morbidities, and it’s rampant.

With weight loss – I’ve seen it time and time again – people can decrease medicine and in many instances lately, we’ve been able to work with their physicians to get people off all their medications.

Diet and exercise together are important?

Absolutely, especially if you’re talking about diabetes. For anyone trying to lose weight, if you do one without the other, nine times out of 10 you’re not going to succeed. When you put them both together, it just works. You feel better, you’re moving your body, you have more energy, you’re fueling it with what it needs. When you have a good workout, the last thing you want to do is have a burger. You feel good, so you want to eat well.

What are some of the excuses you hear from people?

Lack of time. My first response is always, ‘Can you tell me how many hours of TV you watch in a week?’

Lack of motivation, or just not knowing what to do or where to start. My response is always, ‘Can you walk? Start somewhere. Start with what you know and learn as you go.’

With the nutrition being a big part of the puzzle, that’s probably where we have the most confusion. There are habits that people have and it’s hard to break. Going to the grocery store, I always try to remind people, ‘Whatever you put into that cart is going into your body or your family’s body at some point.’ If you can just start there, that’s going to be the foundation of your good choices.