No Lycra, No Mirrors: The Story of a Community Gym

| Maria Passingham

If you’ve ever lived somewhere a little remote then chances are you’ll be well familiar with portable services and amenities: mobile libraries; fish and chip vans; even blood donation trucks. But vans full of treadmills and weights…. Now that’s something new.

In South Norfolk, this is exactly what the district council used in 2013 to encourage their rural residents to get active, and its popularity has seen the ‘mobile gym’ become a regular, community-led fixture in one small town.

The Eastern Rivers Community Gym at Loddon was officially launched in April 2014, after several successful months of the ‘mobile gym’ popping up at the village hall with two qualified instructors and a load of equipment, and becoming popular with the local community. Quickly, a Committee formed to establish a more formal arrangement. 

However, it’s one thing to have a group of people willing to spend their time launching a project, quite another to find those willing to spend money, and unfortunately for Loddon Community Gym, exercise bikes don’t grow on trees.

Luckily the District Council were already on board. The establishment of a more permanent gym run by volunteers relieved them of pressure to cater to that community, and from the start right through to today they have been key financial supporters. Championed by the local District Councillor at the time Derek Blake, the gym received a seed fund of £20,000 which was mostly allocated to purchasing equipment.  

Five years down the line, and with three weekly sessions at a variety of times to suit both those in and out of work, funding is still one of the biggest concerns for the Committee. They say that they’re often able to secure grants, but only for equipment rather than salaries or running costs. Other fundraising methods are through monthly raffles, Membership fees (an incredibly reasonable £18 a year), and a charge per session of £4.50. There is one paid member of staff, which is the gym’s fully qualified and dedicated instructor Louise. Speaking about her role, Honorary Treasurer Mike Balmer said:

“She knows every user personally and is aware of health-related matters which means she can be very precise in what she builds into individual programmes. More than that she genuinely cares about all our customers. If she sees someone pushing a bit too hard too soon she’ll be across to tell them. They all respect and like her.”

Mike Balmer

Balmer also stressed the importance of the gym’s inclusive and social atmosphere.

“We offer an intimidation-free environment, which means first we accept anyone fit enough to join, regardless of age, weight, mobility, and it is a no-judgement experience. We have found a lot of our enthusiastic users are of an age when they are easily put off by a gym with lots of lean, sleek young things pounding treadmills or stretching admiringly in front of a mirror. They are more comfortable exercising somewhere where no-one judges them physically and where people actually enjoy talking to each other.”

Mike Balmer

One tagline that multiple Committee members mention to sum up the gym’s ethos is “no lycra, no mirrors”. Honorary Chairman Richard Birbeck explained why this is important to the gym members:

“Whilst we endeavour to attract members of all ages (over 16)… we are finding that the majority of our members fit into the 60 plus age bracket (one over 90!). We know that for many our gym offers a friendly and relaxed atmosphere where exercise can be taken at their own pace, but with one-to-one attention if required. Many members also see it as a place to meet old and new friends, and there is a real sense of community. Without doubt many people would find a commercial gym intimidating and would probably not take up exercising for that reason.”

Richard Birbeck

Multiple testimonials on the Eastern Rivers Community Gym website reinforce this idea, clearly showing that while health is the drive that gets them there, the no-pressure environment is what keeps them going back. 

The gym quickly proved itself such a useful and valued resource that in 2015 an Exercise/GP Referral Scheme was launched in partnership with local medical practices, where GPs, pulmonary care groups, and local physiotherapists can recommend attendance at the gym as treatment for a patient’s poor health, or to avoid future health complications. 

Of course, this encourages further funding from local authorities as it helps them achieve their public health improvement goals. Additionally, it reduces demand on local health services both short-term and long-term, and helps sustain the gym through multiple membership fees and a core mass of users, who feel strong ties to the organisation, which Birbeck highlighted as one of the gym’s biggest achievements:

“It is very satisfying to see the benefits of regular exercise gained by our members (some very significant). For some it has become a regular meeting place and for some life changing…Our members now also recognise that it is their gym and, as shown by the results of recent fundraising, that they want to keep it. For me this fully justifies its title as a ‘Community’ Gym”.

Richard Birbeck

Find out more about the Eastern River Community Gym at Loddon:

Photos provided by Loddon Community Gym.

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