Our coach Guy was invited to speak at the Bristol Radical Herbal Gathering on the theme of collective approaches to wellbeing, alongside excellent Bristol projects like Countering Colston, ACORN and Kiki.
It was a good chance to lay out the reasons for setting up the gym and why we feel there is a need for a co-operative model within the fitness industry. The full text is below.
We all know the health benefits of physical activity, so I’m not going to bang on about that here.
Let’s assume we know that and we’d like to experience some of those benefits – what then?
We can develop our fitness pretty easily by walking and maybe even running and cycling if we enjoy that, and we’re lucky to have fairly easy access to the countryside and some green spaces in the city.
But we know there are unique benefits to resistance training, and if we want to get them too then many of us will think of going to a gym to use their equipment and coaching expertise so we can know we’re doing things safely.
Unfortunately, gyms aren’t usually designed with that in mind, and as a result 67% of members don’t regularly attend.
Most gyms – and especially those big, low-budget gym chains – are designed to maximise profit, not our fitness. To give just one example, the machines that dominate the gym floor aren’t chosen because they produce greater strength results than using free weights. They usually don’t. Instead, they are chosen because they have a smaller footprint than weightlifting platforms, so more can be crammed in, and because they don’t require any coaching staff, so gyms can save on staff costs. There are many more examples.
Gyms rely on this non-attendance in order to turn a profit. In America, Planet Fitness gyms have on average 6500 members signed up for gyms that could only accommodate 300 people. The situation is not as bad here, but the UK tends to follow American fitness industry trends…
If we look at the research around the reasons for non-attendance, we can categorise them into two groups:
To take the first group, we know that there is a socio-economic gradient to physical inactivity in England. The most active people in our society are young, white, wealthy, non-disabled, hetero men. Some people are excluded from being more physically active as a result of their socio-economic status.
There is a bit of an overused phrase that goes something like “if exercise was a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine.” To extend that analogy, at the moment that super-pill is only being given to young white men. It’s problematic.
Turning to the second group, we encounter the issue of gym culture. Reasons given in the research are around:
- Lack of social support – gyms are often very individualistic environments
- Dissatisfaction with facilities
- Unattractive environment – gyms are in the same property band as light industrial buildings, which is why so many set up in warehouses, which lends a certain aesthetic
- Anxiety in unfamiliar surroundings – in many gyms, aside from a rushed induction, you’re left to fend for yourself in this weird space full of mirrors, loud music and intimidating machines
- Lack of self-efficacy – this relates to the above
So what can we do about this?
Well, we thought, what about starting a gym that was co-operative and not-for-profit? We could use the socially-engaged aspect of co-operatives to try to involve those in our society who aren’t currently as active, and use collaboration to get past the individualism, weird design decisions and unfamiliarity.
We set up Bristol Co-operative Gym in September 2016 and we act according to the Seven Co-operative Principles.
- Open and voluntary membership
- Anyone is welcome to come and train with us, and once they have, they are also invited to join our co-operative and help us design and run the space. We have had more than 500 people come and train with us and about 30 of them are currently members of the co-operative.
- Democratic member control
- We have four General Meetings each year, as well as sub-groups dedicated to specific aspects of running the gym – working with specific communities, marketing, finances etc.. For those who can’t attend meetings, we use an online decision-making platform called Loomio.
- Members’ economic participation
- We are not-for-profit and our finances are reported at every General Meeting so members can be assured that any money we receive goes back into developing their fitness. We have tried to make our classes as affordable as possible and offer tiered memberships according to how often someone is actually training rather than relying on their non-attendance. If we do have any surplus, we decide collectively on how we want it to be used.
- Autonomy and independence
- We are very careful about who we partner with. The fitness industry is incredibly capitalistic but we try to resist this and think very carefully about the monetisation of our bodies and our health.
- Education, training and information
- We host monthly workshops that introduce members to all sorts of things they can do with their bodies, and try to counter the siloing away that can happen within the industry – that separation between dance, weightlifting, gymnastics, tai chi etc. We also try to encourage a discursive sort of coaching, moving away from the classic hierarchical coach-member relationship.
- Co-operation among co-operatives
- We rent our space from All Hallows Community Co-op and have been lucky to receive support from Co-operatives UK. We have worked with co-operatives in other parts of the country that have shown interest in starting a similar sort of project.
- Concern for community
- This relates those socio-economic aspects of inactivity. So far, we work with Bristol Refugee Rights to offer free spaces to their volunteers and have received a grant from Bristol Ageing Better to provide resistance training sessions for older people.
So where are we now?
Having started in late 2016, we now have 7 classes a week, run by two coaches. We have had more than 500 people come and train with us and about 30 of those have become members of the co-operative.
We appear to be the only multi-stakeholder co-operative (coaches and members working together) in the fitness industry, and this seems strange since the fit between the co-operative model and the running of a gym seems pretty neat!
We are still at an early stage of our experiment but the results so far are very exciting.
To work, though, we need support, so I’d like to finish by inviting you to come and train with us. Your first session is free, so you can try it out and see what it’s like. It would be great to have you there.
Thank you for listening.