Give back and get fit

Think you don’t have time to help others? Think again, discover how to be fit while doing good

Have you ever considered doing something positive for others but reasoned that, what with work, family, friends and the gym, you just couldn’t cram a little altruism into your life? If so, it’s time to reconsider, because social initiatives that cleverly combine volunteering opportunities with exercise are coming to a city near you. Hail the expansion of GoodGym, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages participants to merge their fitness routines with social care, by connecting people with physical tasks that benefit their community. 

Think running in a pack to work on a community project, doing one-off missions to help vulnerable people or committing to visiting an isolated older person. GoodGym is the brainchild of Ivo Gormley, a keen runner with a yearning to make it simple for people to engage with socially productive exercise. ‘I was frustrated with the idea of gyms – all these people working furiously on these machines that don’t do anything. It seemed like a massive waste of energy. I wanted to find a way to make it easy for people to do exercise that is actually useful.’ 

What started as a gentle weekly trot to drop in on a housebound family friend (Ivo used to combine weekly runs with a visit to an elderly friend) has dramatically expanded and now covers six areas of the UK, including four London boroughs plus Bristol and Liverpool. Within a few years, GoodGym hopes to operate in every major city in the UK before expanding globally.

How it works

The idea is simple; you register for your local group at goodgym.org then either opt to run as part of a group or on your own. If you run as part of a group, it gives you the chance to work alongside others to do something beneficial for your local area, such as tidying up a communal garden or painting a children’s centre. If you prefer to volunteer alone, then you can choose to be sent on a ‘mission’ to do a one-off job for a vulnerable person, such as changing light bulbs or delivering something. Or if you want to make a regular commitment, you can volunteer to be paired with an older person who becomes your ‘running coach’ during weekly visits.

In each of the three set-ups, everyone wins – both the doer and the receiver. But it’s the pairing of a mobile younger person and older coach that is particularly mutually beneficial, as Ivo explains.‘For the older people, having a visitor is a massive deal. One hundred per cent of the older people we visit regularly consider their runner a friend and most of the older people really feel they are making a contribution to their runner’s fitness, too.’ Runner Harriet, 40, agrees, ‘Aside from being great motivation to leave the house when it’s wet or cold, visiting my coach, Michael, gives me a break in my run, which works well for my half-marathon training as I speed the 2.5 miles there, then warm down on the way home.’

Whichever volunteering option you choose, knowing you’re genuinely making a difference is key. ‘For some members, GoodGym has been their way into regular exercise when they haven’t really seen the point before because knowing that you’re needed and you’re not just doing it for you is a great motivator,’ explains Ivo. ‘It’s about feeling useful and being a part of where you live.’ 

Volunteering with benefits

It also helps that it’s a great way to stay fit. Although detractors might argue that running relatively short distances (group runs vary from 3 to 10K) won’t make a difference to your fitness levels or running ability, Ivo begs to differ. ‘We have the most brilliant personal trainers co-ordinating each local GoodGym, so you’ll get fantastic support from some extremely well-qualified people, as well as from other runners if you opt to run in a group.’ Some GoodGym members have run their first marathons and half-marathons since signing up.

And it won’t just be your running that improves. Tasks assigned to group runners have included shifting two tonnes of earth in 45 minutes, removing weeds from parkland and moving 170 heavy archive boxes down several flights of stairs: feats that involve power, endurance and agility. As GoodGym member Sally points out, ‘Since joining GoodGym, my overall fitness, muscle tone and strength have improved, as has my appreciation of how much people can achieve when they work together.’

But surely the inconsistency of each week’s run and allotted task means that you might not train as effectively as you would in the gym? ‘That’s where the local co-ordinators come into their own,’ says Ivo. ‘On the way back from every task, they take the group through a variety of exercises that ensure everyone has had a good workout,’ says Ivo. So expect fartlek or progressive running on your route home. ‘I’m confident GoodGym will help you achieve your goals through doing good, plus you’ll meet great people and see things in your area.’ Being active in your community has taken on a whole new meaning!

5 ways to help others and get fit 

Volunteer with CSV 

Get stronger while learning new skills by giving up your time for a conservation or environmental project in the UK. Options include helping to preserve parks and open spaces, building adventure playgrounds and restoring heritage buildings. 

Head outdoors anddo good with British Military Fitness

Join a BMF outdoor class and, as well as getting your body in shape, you can get involved in events to raise funds for local charities or enhance the open spaces in which you train. 

Run for a sum

Boost your cardio fitness, not to mention speed and stamina, by running a sponsored race. From Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life to Great Ormond Street Hospital’s Race for the Kids there’s a running challenge out there to suit you. Training will get you fitter, while the money you raise will go to help your chosen cause. 

Get gardening

For an outdoor challenge with a difference, sign up to your local Green Gym. Participants meet outdoors and do a short warm-up before getting stuck into practical tasks such as weeding, planting and building walls – work that improves strength, stamina and confidence. 

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