OPINION - There’s joy in community, starting with the women in my council gym

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

If any local council chiefs are reading this and fancy jumping aboard the Christmas advert train, might I be bold enough to suggest a last-minute entry: a pregnant mother, two teenage girls and a 70-something retiree, all giggling away in the communal showers at their local gym as the septuagenarian proudly reveals she’s just swum a kilometre. “This time last year I couldn’t even manage a length,” she tells her new-found shower squad, wonderfully unselfconscious about the fact that she’s the only one there not in a swimsuit (we might leave that part out for the ad’s sake).

This was the heart-warming scene I found myself in the centre of last week and I believe it perfectly encapsulates a magic I’ve been trying to describe to my friends for years. Let’s call it the feel-good factor: you can’t see it, you don’t have to pay for it (actually, it’s better when you don’t) and much to my friends’ amusement and bemusement, I’ve been actively seeking it out in every London postcode I’ve lived in for the best part of a decade.

It’s not that I don’t like the fancy fitness studios I’ve been lucky enough to try over my years in the capital. My sister gifted me ClassPass credits for my birthday and I was panting my way through a Barry’s treadmill workout just last night. But it was halfway through a burpee, as an offensively handsome instructor barked motivational quotes across the gym floor, that the penny dropped: I think I’d actually choose my beloved local council gym any day — which should come as happy news to anyone struggling with gymflation and a cost-of-exercising crisis (according to London Sport, nearly half of adult Londoners are doing less exercise due to cost-of-living hikes).

For me, it’s less about the money I’m saving (though that helps), and more about the connection. Why rack up all those feel-good endorphins if you’re just going to stand silently in the changing rooms and not share them with the people around you? Sure, the post-workout smoothies and fluffy towels are nice, but is exercising in a room full of silent Lululemon-clad Victoria’s Secret models actually the pick-me-up I need after a long, hard day?

There’s a joy in community, not just calorie-burning — and the best communities often come free. It’s the same joy I’ve discovered from taking up my local running club, touring London’s best parkruns and joining a friend for her Tuesday night netball league. Sure, I might not get a Personal Best when I’m chatting through my 5k and yes, I could probably find a league where the instructor doesn’t rock up late, but none of that really matters when it’s cold, wet and gloomy outside and I’m about to laugh my way around a pitch with a gaggle of strangers for 60 minutes. Isn’t the point of living in a city of nine million people to, um, actually meet some of them?

I’ve met teachers, police officers and civil servants through my £3-a-week netball practice and I’ve certainly always had a lot more to write in my diary after free running club sessions than I’ve ever had after a £24 spin class. There’s a safety in it, too: I don’t feel safe running alone in the dark in winter — neither do 71 per cent of women, according to Sports Direct — so communities like these aren’t just a bonus to living in London, they’re an essential for many women’s (and men’s) mental and physical health.

 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

At risk of sounding like a #ThisGirlCan advert, there’s joy in seeing real bodies, too; those with body hair and war wounds and the armour to have faced two decades taking on the ice-cold waters of Tooting Lido. I’m not saying this to be insulting of the Lululemon tribe; I’m saying this as a fit, able-bodied young professional who’s taken almost 30 years to feel confident stripping off in the communal showers. Give most women I know the choice of stripping there or in front of the hardy old ladies at their local council gym and I think I can safely guess which one most of us would choose.

In a world in which women’s bodies, rights and skirt lengths continue to be policed, there’s something wonderfully humbling about the shabby inclusivity of a local gym. As we enter feasting and soon-to-be dieting season, there must be a Christmas advert somewhere in that.

In other news...

Speaking of inclusivity, did you hear that kid with cerebral palsy on the Today Programme this morning? Yep, I mean the one who just sounded like any other 11-year-old boy talking about his love of football — and, more specifically, his love of England midfielder Jack Grealish, below, who got him that moment of fame.

England’s Jack Grealish celebrates scoring the side’s sixth goal against Iran in the World Cup group game (PA) (PA Wire)
England’s Jack Grealish celebrates scoring the side’s sixth goal against Iran in the World Cup group game (PA) (PA Wire)

Yes, Grealish’s 89th-minute goal was magnificent, but his actions afterwards were arguably even more powerful: a “waggle dance” in tribute to 11-year-old Manchester City fan Finlay, who has the same disability as his sister.

“You face lots of challenges every day,” Finlay has said of his condition — which is why, to me, the most memorable parts of the interview were those in which he didn’t talk about the condition at all. Thanks to Grealish, he had the platform to make cheeky quips about the Reds and the Blues like any other football fan.