Feature: Newham GoodGym takes its exercise with a healthy dose of altruism
PUBLISHED: 17:12 07 October 2014 | UPDATED: 17:18 08 October 2014
I confess it has been a full two years since I last laced up my running shoes and made any meaningful attempt at pacing along the pavement in a bid to stay fit.
The prospect of jogging 5km with a group of total strangers therefore was, as you might imagine, a source of some personal concern.
The cause of this at first unwelcome mission? The inaugural GoodGym session in Newham.
The social enterprise is the brainchild of 32-year-old Ivo Gormley and now covers six London boroughs – having begun in nearby Tower Hamlets – as well as Bristol.
It has the disarmingly simple ambition of bringing people together to exercise and carry out a good deed together. These range from a brief spell of manual labour at a community centre to regular visits with the elderly.
More than 600 people are now members, but it started with just Ivo who would run to visit an old, isolated gentleman he had begun helping back in 2009 before slowly encouraging friends to do the same thing. In 2012 the first GoodGym group run took place.
“It came from thinking that it was a waste of energy all these people running around on treadmills or lifting things that didn’t need lifting. ‘Why don’t we go and do something useful instead?’,” said Ivo, who manages the organisation full time.
“GoodGym is just a really nice way to meet people, to see your local area and do some exercise but also give yourself a bit of purpose.”
I join the group at the London Aquatics Centre in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
There’s some 25 of us in total and many are wearing red GoodGym branded tshirts. I suddenly realise it’s not everyone’s first time and secretly wish I had put in some practice while thinking up potential excuses for my appalling fitness.
Maybe I could feign an ongoing leg injury? Or blame it on these “new shoes” that were hardly new at all. But after speaking with other runners I soon realised there was no need – everyone was friendly and many shared my first-timer fears.
Our trainer for the run was Kirsty Smith, 27, from Barking.
A personal trainer, she will lead future runs in the borough and is currently working towards becoming a professional triple jumper – with eyes on Rio 2016 – while competing for Newham and Essex Beagles Athletics Club.
“This is the perfect way of merging voluntary work and innovative ways of keeping fit,” she told me. “I’m always looking for things that are a bit different. I do love gym training but it’s nice when things are outside of the box.
“This is definitely that – and the mix of people we have seen so far on these runs is really great.”
She leads us on a warm up jog through the Olympic Park, stopping to stretch by multi-coloured jets of water at the fountain in front of the Olympic Stadium. The weather is still clement and the scenery sublime, not to mention inspiring.
Then she takes us to meet Paul Shaw, manager of View Tube Community Centre on the edge of the park. We’re immediately set to task weeding and clearing fencing and mud so that fresh paving can be laid down, spending roughly 20 minutes here in total.
It’s not the first time GoodGym has visited the centre, but it is the first time with the Newham runners.
Paul, 56, explains the benefit of these sporadic visits. “It’s fantastic. We get an amazing amount of resources in a very short amount of time. Stuff that would take us ages to do or would have cost us a lot of money we can get done quickly and for free.”
There’s a convivial atmosphere as people work – frankly I’m amazed no one breaks into a whistle – and as we set off for the remainder of our run spirits are high.
It’s a good feeling and one Ivo and his small group of colleagues are counting on to meet the ambitious plans for the group.
“We want every city in the UK to do it,” he tells me. “I sort of see it as infrastructure for cities in a way. Obesity is a bigger issue in more densely populated areas, so is loneliness and isolation.”
“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that doing something for someone else makes you feel good so why not do it? I think everyone should be doing it. It’s the right thing to do.
“Newham is just a forward thinking place that seems up for it first.”
• GoodGym will meet every Wednesday from 6.45pm at the entrance to the London Aquatics Centre. It is free and open to all abilities. Click here for the GoodGym website.