Mnqobi Kunene’s secret to balancing the festive indulgence with fitness goals

I used to do great in athletics as well - coming first in 100 metres, and high jump, and breaking a long jump record in high school. I used to be good in cross country, and then came rugby with its accolades when I was still young. Picture: Instagram

I used to do great in athletics as well - coming first in 100 metres, and high jump, and breaking a long jump record in high school. I used to be good in cross country, and then came rugby with its accolades when I was still young. Picture: Instagram

Published Dec 20, 2023


At 32, Mnqobi Kunene is making a name for himself in television. With roles in popular shows such as “Imbewu”, “How to Manifest a Man” and “Outlaws”, he is quickly becoming a household name.

His latest venture on Mzansi Magic’s “My Brother’s Keeper” sees him taking on the role of Khwezi, a dignified, savvy and resilient businessman.

While Kunene may be a newcomer to the acting industry, his journey began with a strong foundation in sports.

Growing up in eMondlo, northern KwaZulu-Natal, he pursued his love for sports, particularly rugby, during his time at Vryheid Landbou High School.

Reflecting on his introduction to acting, Kunene recalls: “The whole fitness thing, I’m not gonna say it started there, but the whole passion behind it was ignited by being outside.

“I used to do great in athletics as well – coming first in 100m, and high jump, and breaking a long jump record in high school. I used to be good in cross-country and then came rugby with its accolades when I was still young.”

Mnqobi Kunene. Picture: Instagram

After his rugby career, Kunene realised that staying active was more than just a hobby; it was a passion that he wanted to pursue.

His journey took on a new meaning when he participated in the “Men’s Health” magazine cover guy competition in 2018.

Although he didn’t win, his determination led him to secure a spot in the Top 5.

In 2019, feeling compelled by the universe to try again, he found himself in the Top 20 of the competition.

Kunene’s dedication to his craft is evident and he admits: “I became a nuisance to people, asking them to vote for me. You know how that goes, but I took that seriously.”

In the following years, Kunene embarked on a transformational journey, striving to kick-start his modelling and acting career.

His aspirations were consistently met by discouragement as he was repeatedly told he was “too big” and “didn’t fit the agency’s standards”.

Unwilling to accept defeat, he made the bold decision to relocate to Durban in 2018. This move led to him foregoing weightlifting at the gym in favour of outdoor running.

Adapting to this new routine proved to be a challenging endeavour as he started with modest 2km runs, gradually increasing his distances and refining his running times.

Over time, he felt an improvement in his physical endurance and lung capacity, which was a testament to his commitment and perseverance.

Pushing the boundaries even further, he ventured into beach running, a daunting undertaking which tested his willpower.

Despite the demands of his packed schedule, often involving early-morning calls for filming as early as 4.30am, Kunene remained steadfast in prioritising a balanced lifestyle.

While exercise may not always fit into his busy days, he sticks to his nutrition intake, recognising the pivotal role it plays in supporting his overall health.

His mornings commence with a reviving glass of water or a fortifying cup of green tea, setting the tone for a refreshing start to the day.

“When it comes to my daily routine obviously if I have to work like my days sometimes start early and I have to be on set as early as 4.30 then I won’t obviously have the time to exercise but in terms of nutrition, I try to be very cautious about eating everything on site.

“So in the morning, I start with a glass of water or green tea before leaving the house and when I get to set I have a fruit salad with my cereal, I try to just have a fruit salad but my body also tells me like hey this can’t be just enough.

“So two slices of toast, scrambled eggs with my bacon, but I keep that for a little later in the morning like 10.

“I try to eat the types of food that will give me the energy I need for that morning. I try not to fill my tummy too much because I know I still have to eat. And even if I don’t dish up everything on the buffet because set food is quite dangerous and it can make someone gain some weight.

“I did experience that when I was filming ‘Outlaws’, the food is so delicious that you want to have everything, but I got to a point where I was like I need control.”

In addition to his focus on fitness, Kunene actively engages in touch rugby sessions every Wednesday and Thursday.

He explained: “I have a very high metabolism, I burn a lot, my body tells me you need to put back what you burned the previous days, so I try to control that because I don’t want to gain weight.”

In the hustle and bustle of showbiz, the actor has a trick up his sleeve for staying energised and focused on set: mindful eating and disciplined portion control.

“I try to have lunch at around 1, throughout the day I just drink my water on set, maybe like two bottles of that,” Kunene revealed.

Opting for a mindful approach to food, he consciously leans towards organic fruits and vegetables over processed options, even amid an enticing array of culinary offerings on set.

“There’s no doubt that we all have that tendency of having too much around this time of the year. I’m a culprit, I’m not even gonna lie.”

Kunene blamed his “sweet tooth” for the occasional slip-ups, adding: “I have my days where I tell myself I’m gonna have whatever I feel like having right now, I’m going to enjoy.”

However, he quickly asserts his commitment to self-control and moderation, underscoring the importance of small portions and mindful choices.

“It obviously goes with self-control and discipline. You gotta have your meals in small portions, with the right stuff.”

On Kunene’s approach to navigating the holiday season, he shared: “Even around this time of the year, even if I can have my cheat meals, I always look at it from a long-term perspective.”

Expressing empathy towards the enduring battle of weight management, Kunene added: “When it comes to food, food is very dangerous. It’s where weight gain begins, and it’s hard for most people to lose that weight once they put it on.”

He acknowledged the widespread struggle with shedding lockdown weight, echoing the sentiments of numerous individuals navigating similar challenges.

“No matter how much variety you have right now, always think of your body, think about your well-being and think about what it’ll do to you in the long run.

“So have small portions spaced out, you still gotta be active, you still gotta do something to maintain a healthy weight. Keeping active is not just about that figure, that’s the advice I’d like to give anyone.”

Kunene continued: “It’s really hard to stay on track during this time, I still struggle, but I’ve trained so much that I feel like my body tells me that I still need to do this”

In a bid to stay fit and motivated, Kunene recently joined a local running club that has introduced him to virtual runs.

“You gotta have that support structure to keep you accountable, that’s one way of motivating yourself to stay committed to your fitness goals,” he said.

Motivation can often dwindle during the festive season, especially when fatigue sets in or when the desire to get out of bed seems impossible.

“Sometimes you get demotivated like you don’t want to get up and do anything. Your body is just fatigued,” he admitted. “Recovery is also very important. These are the things that I keep at the back of my head. I’m doing this for myself and nobody else.”

“For me , I stopped focusing on getting muscle mass as opposed to a person who just wants to keep a healthy body and lifestyle. Doing body-weight training has helped me a lot because it has so many benefits. I’ve lost weight through body-weight training. That's how I got into the cover.

“So, for you to create that mindset, it’s okay that maybe I don’t have time to go to the gym. But doing 30 minutes in a day is one of the things I try to stay on top of when I know I won’t have the time. HIIT workouts, treadmill sessions, stationary bike, air bike, even the punching bag – I try to keep my heart elevated. I enjoy push-ups and a variation of all exercises."

“Changing one’s fitness regimen is often a necessary step towards a healthier lifestyle. “I’ve changed my regimen because I used to focus a lot on building muscles and trying to be a body builder,” Kunene shared.

“But there’s no point because, in the long run, you damage your body. We see that professional bodybuilders are struggling right now. I look at it like, how is it going to help me in the long run? What is it going to do to my body in the long run? The same goes for overeating.”

Maintaining a balanced diet is equally important.

“When it comes to these gatherings, it’s easy to fall off the wagon. But my people know the type of person that I am. I focus on organic and wholegrain meals. I do enjoy some steak, chicken, Boerewors, and also some veggies. I enjoy sweet potatoes.

“I try to keep my plate small. I keep it simple – it’s always a colourful meal with protein.

“Like I said, I don’t skip two days without training,” Kunene cautioned.

“I am trying to get into a triathlon. The social gatherings are slowly going to go down. The way I look at fitness is that whatever goal you have, you have so many resolutions in the new year.

“So, I try to channel my fitness and what I want to achieve in terms of my body. I’ve trained to that level, that’s where I am.”