Bristol Co-operative Gym is the first co-operatively run gym in the UK. The gym’s core membership is made up of people in their 20s and 30s. The members believe that exercise should be made accessible, affordable and adaptive for anybody, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, identity, ability, or body shape. Being member-run means the gym can provide social health and fitness activities that suit members’ needs in an environment where everyone can feel comfortable and supported. The gym aims to build an inclusive culture free from assumptions about identity and appearance while making participation as affordable as possible.
Co-founder Guy Lochhead, aged 32, wanted to offer an inclusive, welcoming space for exercise, social health and fitness activities. He became interested in weightlifting in his 20s and was part of a close-knit group of friends who worked out together. He knew others like him who were interested in fitness but felt uncomfortable about going to a traditional gym, so he started to explore alternative models.
“The usual gym environment is quite an exclusionary environment and that’s reflected in the data around who uses gyms,” says Guy. “We thought it might be interesting to offer something different. We also wanted to look critically at the conventional gym model which depends on overselling memberships, and imagine what an alternative model might look like. I started getting in touch with coaches and people who might want to attend classes, and it grew from there.”
Guy knew that a co-operative model made sense so that the gym could be run by the community it served, but he had no prior experience of running this type of venture. He turned to support from The Co-operative Assistance Network and received mentoring from a co-operative and community shares advisor who provided a lifeline of support in the early stages. He was able to draw on a supportive peer community of other co-operatives and do-it-yourself independent initiatives in the Bristol area.
Since 2016, the gym has welcomed more than 1,000 people to classes in the Easton and Lawrence Hill wards of East Bristol. Everybody signs up to the collective aims of the gym and takes responsibility for creating a welcoming, approachable, and supportive environment for regular and new members. As a co-operative, the team uses a collaborative and transparent decision-making process to agree matters like pricing. The inclusive ethos of the gym has resulted in a better service for all.
Lotte Kammenga, aged 31, is one of three volunteer directors of the gym. She moved to Bristol from the Netherlands in 2013 and started going to Bristol Co-operative Gym in 2018 to do weightlifting. She then got more involved in the management of the gym and became a director during the pandemic, helping the team with fundraising and data analysis. She looks at member feedback and data collected by the gym to help the team make more informed strategic decisions. This fits in well with her role in data analysis at a national charity.
“It’s fun and a nice community,” she says. “Because it’s a co-operative, everyone makes it work together and it’s just a really nice vibe. Being a member is an opportunity to be as involved as much as you want, and dip your toe in to see what it’s like before taking on increased responsibility.”
In 2020/21 the gym moved to a new studio at a community centre in the east of the city. This marked the start of a long-term vision to create a permanent exercise and fitness base for the local community. The team is working with an architect and launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a refit of the studio space. Guy, Lotte and the team are excited about having their own home and making gym and fitness accessible to more people in Bristol.