Big Issue Vendor

Changemakers: Ivo Gormley’s GoodGym is lending muscle where it’s needed

Fed up of the gym and not a fan of a "pointless run around the block", the runner found a way to combine exercise with doing good

Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, we speak to Ivo Gormley founder of the running group with a mission to change the world. 

As many of us flock back to neglected gyms in January, we soon realise just how isolating it can be – and not much fun. That was the starting point for Ivo Gormley, 36, who came up with the GoodGym concept after growing fed up with the gym and deciding that a run round the block was “a pain, just pointless”.

He fantasised about plugging his bike into an electricity grid, so his energy would go to producing something helpful: not just exercising, but doing good at the same time.

Gormley studied anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, and went on to become a filmmaker before moving into the social sector to lead healthcare service designer think public as creative director. He even turned running into work when he collaborated with Italian filmmaker Matan Rochlitz on The Runners, which explored the idea that people might be more open about their lives if interviewed while jogging.

It was around this time that he heard of an elderly ex-builder, estranged from family and housebound after a fall, living a mile away. Gormley got in touch and asked the man if he could run over to visit him. “He said it would be very helpful if I could bring the newspaper. And that’s what I started doing every Tuesday and Thursday.”

It immediately felt fun and exciting but also meaningful

The pair formed a friendship, exchanging stories and learning from each other. Gormley had a reason to get out and exercise on cold evenings, and the ex-builder had company. Both were reconnecting with their community.

The filmmaker started enjoying the process of running and wondered if his strategy could entice others into keeping fit too. He started organising group sessions in Bethnal Green, all running from their homes to “whatever community project needed help that week”. They kicked off by clearing out a cupboard at St Hilda’s Community Centre; later, taking down old, out-of-date posters at the local tube station. At one point, a group of 15 runners moved tonnes of earth onto the roof of a school for its growing project.

My 3 tips for success

  1. Listen. It’s so important to really understand the experience of whoever you’re trying to provide for.
  2. Keep going and don’t stop. Even when other people don’t particularly believe in it.
  3. It’s quicker to try something and see rather than spend ages talking about an idea. You’ll know immediately if you’re onto a winner or if you should cut your losses.

“You get there, you work hard, you do the job and you run off again,” says Gormley. “It immediately felt fun and exciting but also meaningful, like we were doing something useful. It was a bit of an adventure.”

Gormley registered GoodGym as a not-for-profit in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he could swap his day job for leading the organisation full-time. Six years later, GoodGym has 10,000 members and operates in 51 locations across the UK.

GoodGym offers three types of runs: missions, where a group run to help older people with one-off tasks they can’t do alone, like changing lightbulbs. Alternatively, 90-minute group runs are centred on a local
community project that needs attention, often flagged up by a local authority. Runners follow different routes to meet up and get to work. The third, coach runs, link runners with an elderly person in their community who might suffer from isolation. (GoodGym partners with Age UK to make sure the process is effective and safe.)

“I was talking to someone who was saying that their GoodGym runner is their only friend in the world,” says Gormley. “You can have a massive impact on someone else who hasn’t got the option to go out and socialise.”

Runners in Liverpool recently helped set up St Luke’s Bombed Out Church for Chinese new year; a group in Bournemouth jogged to a foodbank to help sort donations, and runners helped elderly people ensure their houses were clean and fully stocked in the run up to Christmas.

“Isolation is a massive issue for younger people too and GoodGym is a good way to meet other people like you. But social and friendly human interaction is hard to come by if you’re not able to leave your home.”

GoodGym is in the process of establishing walking groups, following successful trials in York and Bristol, and Gormley’s sights are set on the “thousands of amazing community projects and public spaces that could do with more work,” and a GoodGym in every major British city by the end of this year.

“Imagine if we could put all the energy that goes into people lifting weights and put that into community projects. Imagine just how much could be achieved.”