Social enterprises give leisure and fitness industry an Oomph | Social Enterprise Network | Guardian Professional

Social enterprises give leisure and fitness industry an Oomph

These options have a deeper impact on members than a tight torso

  • Pensioners Keep Fit
Social enterprises are tapping into markets where others are not meeting needs, in particular the elderly. Photograph: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The 2012 UK State of the Fitness sector report showed the fitness/ leisure centre industry was continuing to grow, with a 3.4% rise in membership and a market value of £3.86bn.

Yet, Herman Rutgers, on the board at the European Health & Fitness Association, commented in the report: “We need to do a better job of listening to the needs and wants of our customers and potential customers. With a penetration of only 12% we can hardly speak of a saturated market”.

This is at a time when consumers are taking their fitness more seriously, with a plethora of apps available to monitor exercise habits and marathon places selling out in minutes.

Gym membership is still growing and whilst an increasing number of leisure and fitness centres are run by social enterprises, the social enterprise movement is also proving there is room to innovate and bring more unique offerings to the pitch.

In true social enterprise style, these options aim to be affordable, have a deeper impact on members than a tighter torso, strengthen communities, and provide sustainable jobs, training and good volunteering opportunities.

Two years ago, Ben Allen, who graduated with a degree in sports and leisure management, saw a gap in the market to provide leisure services for older people in care homes. His social enterprise, the Oomph, now brings fitness classes, such as chairobics and Strictly Fun Dancing, to thousands of elderly people, and has won several awards.

Innovation in the area of the leisure and health sector that Oomph operates in has generally been poor,” says Allen, 28, “we are breaking the mould and changing the sector for the better.”

The starting point for the Oomph was a passion for improving elderly people’s lives – an area so few people in the leisure and health industry cared about or did enough about, believes Allen.

“I realised there was a great opportunity as there was hardly any innovation in this area. Over several years, Oomph has built up unique training techniques, choreography and routines that have really changed the sector and are already used by more than 500 care homes and 15,000 residents,” he said. Allen said that fitness and personal training companies often see care homes and the elderly as the less ‘glamorous’ part of the market, but he feels they are a huge and growing part of the population that deserves dignity and respect.

It is often the speciality of social entrepreneurs to see need and markets where others don’t. Just over a year ago, social entrepreneur and dance teacher Amanda Jones, set up Irreverent Dance (ID), for people who have felt uncomfortable or restricted in regular classes because they don’t conform to gender stereotypes or stereotypes of the ‘perfect body’. At the moment, she runs regular ballet, hip hop and tap classes in East London.

The ballet classes have no male and female-specific moves and you will find people of all sexualities and across the gender spectrum. Many, including Jones, gave up dancing in their youth because they felt rejected in mainstream classes. The ID team is now working to take the classes outside London, training other teachers using the ID ethos.

Allen is also trying to extend the Oomph’s reach by training activity coordinators in care homes to deliver classes themselves. “This allows care home workers to run very regular, highly cost-effective classes,” he says.

Allen’s instructors are paid a higher than average wage compared to peers across the leisure industry and have often previously been unemployed.

Skilling up people, and helping to provide sustainable futures is often central to the social enterprise offering and the fitness and leisure industries offer good scope for this, as another award-winning social enterprise Vi-Ability is extensively proving.

The outfit, set up three years ago by ex-Liverpool and Arsenal player, Kelly Davies, has trained hundreds of unemployed and disadvantaged young people, in sustainable football club management and in organising community football initiatives.

Davies who has 36 caps for Wales and is the youngest woman to get an MBA in the Football Industries, believes there is a lack of business sense in the football sector. During her studies, she had the idea for Vi-ability, a social business that could tackle the issues of commercially unsustainable football clubs and youth disengagement in education by providing training and qualifications in football.

“Has it been easy to innovate in football? It’s been a huge amount of hard work. Initially we faced barriers; there were a lot of people doubting us because we were offering something different. Football is often a ‘closed shop’,” said Davies.

“However, after a hugely successful first project with Colwyn Bay Football Club and winning national awards, these days we are often approached to work with clubs around the world,” she said.

Davies is now expanding Vi-Ability’s reach into other sports, partnering with Hockey Wales and Swim Wales to diversify its model.

Golfing is another area in need of some social enterprise innovation, according to Ian Mitchell, business development director at Mytime Active. The social enterprise, which works with a number of public leisure centres across the country, saw a big opportunity to try to make golf more accessible to a wider variety of people on different incomes and, to refurbish golf courses that hadn’t been maintained for many years.

The leisure industry appears a good route for social enterprises to fulfill a number of missions in one go, and, with 88% of people still not feeling the lure of the treadmill, it’s likely there’s still scope for innovation to provide fitness opportunities that really tap into what people want.

“We also provide clubs and equipment for schools and young people. The average age of people who play golf is 50-60, but with the sport now being part of the next Olympics we want to use the next three years to get more people involved,” he added.

Mitchell said: “We are working with local authorities to make golf less elitist, to stir the market; we’ve introduced more concessionary prices and better payment structures. The organisation has invested millions of pounds in new equipment, club house, course improvements and driving ranges to bring affordable golf to more people, especially families and the youth.”


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