Community, connection + the cooperative model

In a marketplace marred by big business homogeneity, the co-operative model is increasingly valued as the sustainable answer to independent business survival. From pubs and breweries to dairies and fashion labels, member-ownership is enabling communities across the country to shape goods and services that represent their interests, diversity and changing needs.

Bristol Co-operative Gym is the first of it’s kind in the UK, their principles of supportive inclusivity and accessibility are fully aligned with our own here at Supply – so, we got together with organiser, member-owner and trainer Guy Lochhead to talk all things wellness, community and connection in the age of ‘new normal’.

Guy, tell us a little bit about why you began the Bristol Co-operative Gym, what is it about fitness culture that you wanted to address?

I like to compare fitness culture with food cultures. Both start with an essential activity - eating or moving - but whereas eating has developed into many rich and varied experiences the dominant fitness culture, with some exceptions, has stayed relatively shallow and monocultural.

I like to think of the word “dining” and all the implications of pleasure and exploration that come with that, drawing from global food histories and with a recognition of how people and place affect our enjoyment of food - a potluck with friends vs a meal deal on your own in a car park vs tea at the Ritz vs eating fresh sugarsnaps in the sunshine. These are all different experiences, but it’s all eating. If eating can become dining, what can moving become?

That plurality doesn’t really exist in our current approach to fitness. There are many fascinating macro reasons for this - the general historical trend away from physical activity at work and for entertainment brought about by technology and industrialisation, the spread of Protestant values across western Europe, and the colonial sportification of “folk games” - but on a micro-level it’s also true that there is a certain sort of typology and value system that most movement spaces fit into. We know what to expect from a dance studio / gym / leisure centre. We can travel the world and always enter similar-feeling, gendered, perhaps boring and off-putting spaces and that feels like a shame because movement can be really good fun, and of course it’s very important for our wellbeing too.

I am particularly interested in how this relates to weightlifting gyms because we can run, swim or dance anywhere really but it’s useful to have a dedicated space for doing lifting, simply because we need somewhere to keep the heavy things that are hard to move! Frustratingly, gyms have been some of the most toxic movement spaces and this has denied the pleasures and unique benefits of heavy lifting to the majority of us.

So I wanted to imagine what an antithesis to the dominant gym model would be - it would have to be not-for-profit, run by its members, and with a business model that didn’t depend on manipulating people into memberships they don’t use. It would also need to try to actively reach people who usually feel excluded from conventional gym spaces. I’d sort of thought myself into a corner so decided to try to set up the co-op gym! That was back in September 2016.

What does inclusivity in wellness/fitness/movement mean to you and, in your experience, how can those of us creating wellness spaces make our service more inclusive of everyone?

When I imagine my ideal fitness future, it’s really just that there are more options - many varied training settings that match our many and varied backgrounds and reasons for exercising.

On some level I love spit-and-sawdust meathead gyms, discount “box” gyms and ultra-bougie barre studios because they appeal to some people and so it’s important that they exist, but we also know that there are many, many people who are excluded from the narrow set of facilities we can currently access.

It’s hard work, especially with limited resources, to try to create a space that is truly accessible to everybody. There are some training spaces where that feels like a necessary ideal, like municipal leisure centres, but I feel most excited by the idea of a diverse range of smaller places whose whole character has emerged from the people that use them and their needs, and that these might collectively provide everybody with a space to move.

I think that’s why I’m enthusiastic about a member-owned, member-run model - if that’s paired with a legitimate effort to engage other people who aren’t into what’s currently available it could be really beautiful. It’s impossible to imagine the sorts of unique vernacular fitness and movement subcultures that might emerge.

This past couple of years has been tough on our health and wellness, lots of folks have found solace in the safety of online classes. As a trainer and a participant, what are your experiences of online classes and do you think the future of fitness culture looks different to how we might have predicted pre-pandemic?

I think there is a pull in two directions - one towards the convenience and accessibility of online training at a time when things may feel unsafe and stressful, and another towards returning to the “third place” community-building that can come through training together after a period of intense disconnection. I feel pulled in different directions on different days. Hybrid models may offer the best of both worlds or possibly just a bland compromise if done thoughtlessly.

I feel really excited about the opportunities for international collaboration that can come out of this too. A growing number of fitness workers and gyms are rejecting the dominant culture of fitness and creating something that meets the needs of their communities. I would love to see relationships between us all strengthening so we can learn from each other.

Co-operative models are becoming increasingly popular, what is it about this community interest centred approach to small business that works for Bristol Co-op Gym?

I think there are benefits for both the members and the gym as well as some potential drawbacks.

There is a framework of human motivation called Self-Determination Theory which suggests that we are more likely to have a better sense of wellbeing if three basic psychological needs are met - autonomy, competence and belonging. In other words, when we feel in control of our lives, able to act, and connected to others. I feel that the co-operative gym model meets these needs extraordinarily well and that this can in itself, before we’ve even done any training, have positive effects on our wellbeing.

From a business perspective the co-operative model can be beneficial too. I think that the connection our members feel with the gym means we have a lower rate of churn in our membership, which typically creates cashflow problems in conventional gym models. We were able to survive the lockdowns largely because some of our members chose to pay more just to keep us going. This was a very different experience to that of gyms with a more transactional relationship with their users who saw a huge drop in income as everyone paused or cancelled their memberships.

Being a co-operative also means the stress and labour involved in running a gym is shared between a larger number of people rather than one business owner, hopefully avoiding the burnout that can affect so many small organisations.

Besides all that, it just feels on some level like the “right” thing to do. We have a gym that succeeds when its members succeed rather than the conventional discount gym model which depends on selling many more memberships than the floorspace could ever support.

The drawbacks of a co-operative model may be the extra faff of governance and decision-making (though I would consider this a strength as it leads to better decisions) and the amount of voluntary labour required of the members. It would be nice if there was the option of being paid for running the gym as many people can’t afford to work for free but we don’t have the funds to offer that. This is not necessarily a consequence of being a co-op but rather because we try to keep our pricing affordable, though those value systems tend to go together.

I said before that co-ops can avoid individual burnout, but the opposite can be true too - it’s important that care measures are put in place within the organisation to make sure nobody is taking on more than they have capacity for or feeling unsupported.

There is a broader benefit here of popularising alternatives to the standard business model. There is a rich history of co-operatives and self-organisation in this country but most of us are unfamiliar with that. I love the idea of returning attention to shared ownership models that can be fairer, sustainable, resilient, and good fun to be a part of.

Whilst things are uncertain for coops, small businesses, the industry and the wider participating community, what are your hopes for the future - whether micro (in the gym), more broadly in Bristol or macro, for fitness culture everywhere?

Last November we moved into our own studio in a wonderful community arts centre run by Bricks in St. Anne’s in Bristol! It was a good end to a stressful year that opens up so many opportunities for us to develop our work, offering free classes and welcoming more people.

We have just concluded a really fun collaborative design process with the fantastic architects 2A1M to imagine our dream gym space - welcoming, flexible, with all the kit we need and plenty of space for chatting. In March we will begin a crowdfunding campaign to fund the renovation. If you like the sound of what we’re up to please do consider supporting it!

As part of the campaign we will be hosting an event in April and inviting people doing radical and inclusive fitness work from all over the place to come and chat and eat and lift some stuff. I would like to invite you and all your readers to attend.

That’s a general theme for me this year and beyond - more connection! I’m so excited to contribute to this movement and learn from everybody. A shift towards a fitness culture that better serves more people is long overdue and it feels as though momentum is building.

Abi Nolan + Guy Lochhead, 2022