In Praise of the Community Gym

On Saturday we did EMOMS in the park. That’s “every minute on the minute” in fitness speak. Before, during, and after, alternating side lunges, push ups, pulse squats to burpees, band rows and bicep curls with sprints (pant!) x 4, the 9 of us greeted each other with the familiarity of a close community. Socially distanced, of course.

In March, I wrote about Community and the Gradual Change of Normal. The world has changed in so many ways since March. For example, we are now at a point in the pandemic where seeing people in TV shows and movies who are close together and not wearing masks, seems weird! Social distancing and mask-wearing for every day activities were not part of most of our experiences before March 2020. There’s a joke going around that says “Today marks 5 years we’ve been in 2020.”

Black lettering on a pink background that says “Today marks 5 years we’ve been in 2020.”

The anxiety of living through a pandemic, regardless of one’s personal situation, is heightened for most people. Many people have lost their jobs, couples have split up, people are struggling with their mental health in a myriad of ways. And we are just at the beginning of the long winter ahead in the northern hemisphere. It’s common knowledge that a sense of community is a vital part of maintaining a healthy outlook. I can confidently state that almost 9 months into this pandemic, the community provided through my workouts with MOVEfitness Club, has helped me maintain some semblance of normal. It’s no secret on FIFI that one of the main the reasons I work out regularly and consistently is to regulate my moods. It’s not just important “that” I work out, but also “how” I work out. Having a day or two with my MOVE community is a vital part of my tool chest. Being amongst other people, with a great coach, always makes me work just a little harder. It’s so important to me that I hope I can bundle up and continue the workouts in the park through most of the winter.

There has been much talk about whether boutique gyms should be open or not. Cate wrote about the importance of local small gyms here. Last week, the Ontario government said that dance studios could open in hot spots. It does make me wonder whether the people making these decisions understand how boutique gyms work in comparison to dance studios. They probably look very similar, in that they have less than 10 people in a class at once. They each have their own work station and they don’t share equipment. They also have to pre-register for classes and are screened for Covid before entering the class. I can say from experience, the classes are typically filled with the same cohort of people, class to class.

I am not going to get into whether boutique gyms should be open inside or not. Even us fitness enthusiasts have slightly differing views about how gyms should look during the pandemic. What doesn’t differ is our love for our community gym. While I have stayed outside since the beginning of the pandemic, I recognize the benefits for others and risk analysis they make, when choosing to go inside. And, if nothing else, a clear, consistent, and fact-based message from our government officials and health experts seems a reasonable request.

What does “boutique gym” mean? For some, “boutique” may sound chic and a little extravagant. But there is nothing extravagant about the sense of community that exists at MOVE. When one first enters MOVE, they may notice the fancy weight rig and the Kiehl’s cosmetic products in the washroom. The longer you stick around, you might be struck by the comfort that members have with each other. You may also notice the encouragement when someone does a lift they’ve never done before or hits a PR. Or the supportive small talk between sets. Not to mention the positive words about women’s strength and focusing on encouraging women to make the most of their own strength rather than on society’s definition of a healthy body. “Boutique” in this sense means community to me.

As someone who never felt comfortable in larger gyms, no matter how confident I felt with my workout, I have found my community in these types of gyms for several years. I have been going to MOVE for about 4 years now and I can say that the ties made with people I work out with on a regular basis, in a smaller setting, are important for my overall well being. Some people may get this benefit from other communities, it doesn’t have to be a fitness one, but for many of us the fitness community is crucial.

In the case of MOVE, it happens to be a women-only space. I didn’t purposely seek out a women-only space. But I do feel that I benefit from the comfort and camaraderie that is found amongst women of varying ages, and varying sexual and gender identities. When I did work out in mixed gender gyms, I felt a little uncomfortable if I had to cut in on the weight rig if there were hyper-masculine men working on the rig. Warranted or not, it is how I felt. Also, I do see value in being among other women testing their strength and stamina. I’ve had women I don’t know all that well give me a (consensual) hug if they overheard me mention someone I love was in the hospital, waves on the street and smiling faces in local stores, that I wouldn’t otherwise experience in a busy urban area.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the virtual and outdoor park workouts have kept me connected to this community. While I currently have a Bowflex spinning bike on order, which I am confident will help me maintain my cardiovascular health, along with my running practice (currently excited about the Toronto Women’s 416 Run Challenge – thanks for the tip, cousin Nancy!), I know they won’t replace the positive benefits I derive from my workouts with my community at MOVE.

I am not the only one that feels this way. I have asked Kelly, the owner of MOVE, and a few other women to provide a little bit about what MOVE means to them.

Kelly, 45, says “As a woman in fitness, I am beyond grateful for my less than ideal journey to where I am today. My struggles with all of the toxicity in the fitness space have made me relentlessly focused and crystal clear on what type of experience I need to ensure I provide to women, and what I long to be part of. An experience that holds space for women to focus on becoming strong, empowered and recognizing all that their bodies can be capable of and forgetting the pressure that can have us believe our weight determines our worth. Community for me, means being a part of something that lifts your spirits, shifts your focus to a higher purpose and bring a collective of likeminded humans together, that all long to be part of the same movement.”

Laura, 30, says “MOVE workouts have been so important to me throughout the pandemic. Not only has exercise helped me mentally and physically, being able to see so many amazing women on a regular basis (even if it’s on a screen!) has made me feel connected to the community. I have made great friendships through the gym and getting outside with these women has been such a silver lining this year.

Cate (fellow FIFI blogger and who I met at MOVE), 55, says “For me, the small fitness spaces are a critical part of what makes my neighbourhood vibrant and connected. MOVE, Torq and Mend Physio have all supported the fundraising for the project I run in Uganda, underlining that they understand what’s important to us about community wellbeing in general, not just physical fitness. I understand who is in my neighbourhood and what’s important to them when I show up to local yoga spaces, gyms and spin studios. Their owners live in my neighbourhood, care about their members, support independent shops, and are a essential part of what makes it home.

Lesli, 49, says “Much like my own family, my fitness family is where I feel supported, encouraged, uplifted – it’s where I belong. My MOVE family has meant the world to me over the past four years, but especially during this pandemic. I am beyond grateful to this community for their support of both my physical and mental health. Whether we are coming together indoors, outdoors, or virtually; our connection is strong. We will get through this together as a community/family.

Kristy, 42, says “My workout is a time to get away from the stress of my life (this includes the constant barrage of corona news), move my body, be with like minded people and challenge myself to get stronger and be healthier. They give me a sense of purpose, something constructive to work on as the time slowly passes by. Without them my mood is low, I am not with people, my body doesn’t feel as good. I have to work harder to feel accomplished.

Brittany, 29, says “Since COVID began, prioritizing my mental and physical health has been challenging (as I know it has been for many). While MOVE, the women’s gym I once frequented 3+ times a week, had to temporarily close its physical doors, Kelly and team soon began offering live virtual and outdoor classes. Honestly, I credit the classes and community for keeping me sane these last 8 months.

Whether I take a virtual strength-based class at lunch or an evening class in the park to get my sweat on with ladies I love, it’s a chance to connect, boost my mood on days I need it most, stick to a routine and stay active. Bring on the snow suit, I’m ready to break a sweat outdoors all winter long!!!”

While we prepare for the winter ahead, I (Nicole) think it is a good idea to consider what community means to people and if they are not able to participate in their usual community activities, they may be grieving that loss for good reason. It’s another opportunity to be kind and supportive, even if it’s simply a matter of acknowledging their feelings.

Nicole P. is tired, but happy, in this picture, following an early morning park workout with MOVE.

2 thoughts on “In Praise of the Community Gym

  1. Thanks Nicole. I appreciate your articulation of the value of these spaces. I’ve always thought of these smaller, niche gyms as a big city thing. There aren’t spin studios in either London or Guelph. And there aren’t feminist CrossFit style places either. There’s regular CrossFit but not like Move. The word choice question is interesting. I was thinking ’boutique’ in a ‘niche’ way, like catering to a narrower, defined range of interests, not in a price and access way.
    But ‘community’ strikes me as more like the Y, places with a commitment to access for all, good childcare etc.
    Whatever we call them it’s clear these spaces are important to their members. It’s never been a thing I’ve had in my life. My affirming fitness communities have always been teams or dojos. But if I’d spent more time in cities that might have been different. I certainly loved working out at Newsgirls in your hood. And I’ve enjoyed spinning at Torq when I’m in town. I’ve also wanted to try out Toronto’s indoor rowing club!

    1. Thanks Sam! To me the community gym can come in many forms. It’s more about the culture fostered inside than whether it’s a large one or boutique. I’ve had great experiences at many places in my area, mostly smaller ones though.

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