On Thursday 19 March 2020 Elaine (45) and Jay (48) Stott watched the doors get locked to the four leisure centres they worked at in Rochdale, not knowing when, or if, they’d return.
This was the first time in 25 years that Elaine hadn’t worked as a fitness instructor. But she wasn’t going to let a pandemic stop her, or the people she taught, from keeping active.
Over the weekend Elaine and Jay put their heads together and by the Monday morning they were launching a full timetable on Facebook – which was free for anyone to use. The couple invited members and people they knew to join their #GymBuddies2020 group and livestream. By the end of the first week they had 603 people taking part, representing 17 nationalities!
Elaine says, “We tried to keep the timetable as close to what we deliver at the centres as possible, though we couldn’t offer spin as not everyone has a bike! We’d start at 7am with yoga, which was a really positive way to start the day. Then we’d have an exercise of the day at 10am, which was an introduction to something new to keep it interesting, and a 3pm cardio shake-up for those who’d been sat down all day.
“In between these set sessions we’d have lots of shorter sessions, perfect for people who need to fit moving round this ‘new normal’ we’re all having to deal with – kids at home, struggling to get shopping slots, queuing for everything and Zoom calls at all hours! We covered Pilates, yoga, cardio, dance, body conditioning and loads more.
“We did all of this live from our living room and continued to deliver 24 sessions across five days a week, for 22 weeks. We’d only thought we’d be doing it for a month at the maximum!”
Jay adds, “Over time we asked people what they wanted from the timetable and worked in sessions that they wouldn’t usually do at the centres, such as ballet inspired fitness. We’ve never used Facebook Live before, but we found that everyone really enjoyed it and it kept everyone engaged. A lot of people would tell us that they felt they could get involved in things they wouldn’t try in the centres – no one can see them on Facebook, so they can wiggle, jiggle and dance badly to their heart’s content. One guy even told me that he’d taken part in most of our dance classes, something he’d never usually do, because the only people around to judge him were his cats!
“The majority of the group have actually told us they’re fitter than they were before lockdown, which has been really great to hear.”
It wasn’t just about keeping people active, they also had a big effect on the group’s mental health.
Elaine said, “As lockdown wore on, we noticed that people weren’t always their usual bubbly selves. We saw a marked decline in the mental health of the people we knew, and we knew we had to do something.
“Getting active is great to make some space for yourself in the day. Moving your body also releases endorphins, which helps you feel and sleep better. We were already putting on lots of opportunities for people to get active, so we knew we had to do more.”
The couple set the group small challenges and introduced fun sessions like ‘sing on your doorstep Sunday,’ ‘formal clothes Friday’, having #GymBuddies2020 t-shirts made for everyone, celebrating VE day together and encouraging people to post selfies celebrating little, everyday wins, no matter what they were.
In addition, Elaine and Jay researched and published mental health and selfcare information on the page, and provided signposting to mental health and wellbeing services.
Once lockdown lifted a little Elaine and Jay started to organise small, distanced group walks, creating a safe way to combat isolation and promote building personal relationships back up, while enjoying the fresh air.
Elaine says, “Our page became a little hub for people to connect with each other, offer help and find support. Over time we became as much a community space as an exercise group. We’d see someone post something and the group would all pile in with tips, offers of helps and words of support. It was so lovely to be a part of.”
Elaine and Jay also opened the page to the older adult groups they work with in the community, adding chair-based and accessible sessions to their weekly timetable. This gave people with limited mobility and those shielding an opportunity to keep active.
“As the centres reopened and we've started to go back into work we knew the group could not carry on as it was, however we wanted to offer people the opportunity to stay with us if they wanted to or if they weren’t able to go back to the centres for health or economic reasons. So, our group now operates as Fit4Every1, with a very small monthly payment.
“We still offer a 24 class a week timetable, we've added in some wellbeing sessions, we have a monthly challenge and our first month was STEP-Tember. 63 of us collectively walked 1,712 miles in the first 14 days of September! This has included people walking in their own homes and gardens, on their own as they go about their daily business and also as small, distanced groups of six.
“The best story was from one of the stroke clients who joined us, who for the first time after his stroke walked 10,000 steps in a day and thanked the whole group for supporting him to achieve that.”
Jay adds, “The pandemic hasn’t been easy for any of us, but we hope we’ve managed to inspire people and give them somewhere to turn to if they need us. Yes, we wanted to keep people moving, but more than that we wanted to make sure they were feeling ok, sleeping ok and dealing with whatever the pandemic threw at that. Moving more helps with all of that.”