Work Out, Give Back: How Wellness Got Woke (Eventbrite, Jan 21 2018)

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It’s 8pm on a brisk Monday night, and I’m shovelling manure by the light of a head-torch. What’s more, I’m loving it.

I’ve come to try out the nearest branch of GoodGym, a group combining exercise with helping out in local communities. Tonight, we’ve run from our meeting point at a sports centre to a small community garden, where we’re prepping the ground to be planted with flowers. There’s an upbeat, chatty atmosphere, and after a day stuck behind a computer it feels good to be working in a team on something positive.

This is one of GoodGym’s ‘group runs,’ but you can also choose to do ‘coach runs’ (running to visit a socially isolated older person) or ‘mission runs’ (running to help an older person with a one-off practical task.) With multiple branches across the city, GoodGym is increasingly popular – and its growth is indicative of a wider trend.

Increasingly, it seems, we want our exercise to come with an extra dimension: we want to give back as we work out.

The link between exercise and charity is, of course, nothing new. Who hasn’t sponsored a mate doing a triathlon or marathon to raise money for a good cause? Sport doesn’t just keep us fit – it builds bridges and forges friendships. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that in London ‘wellness’ has often come to mean something elite, expensive and self-focused – a world of £5 green smoothies, #gains selfies and boutique fitness classes with long waiting lists.

“I gave GoodGym a try and never looked back,” says Chima Nwa, a 33-year-old IT engineer, youth worker and DJ. “I like the mixture of being social, getting fit and making a difference in the community. My favourite missions have involved painting a community kitchen, and helping out in a hospital.”

In a city where many people move about frequently, and don’t necessarily feel truly connected to their local community, combining exercise with social contribution can help give individuals a meaningful sense of place.

“I would really recommend it for anyone new to an area, trying to get to know people or find out more about what an area is about,” says Chima. “You meet a really friendly mixture of people. When I was injured, so needed go really slowly, there was always someone in the back, chatting to me and keeping me company.”

The appetite is out there to start giving back – but most are time poor, stressed, and wary of committing to anything too regular. When organisations make it easy for us to combine giving back with exercise, there can be a special kind of alchemy.

Tyler Williams-Green, a 35-year-old welfare and development coordinator for a charity supporting marginalised young people, leads a weekly running club, The Outrunners. While the sessions always involve hills, technique advice and interval training, Tyler has started combining these with altruistic missions every month or so.

“I’d get a young, professional clientele – quite sorted, good job – who wanted to give back but didn’t want to do it all the time,” he says. “So, every few months, I try and think of something for us to do as a group, incorporated into the running session.”

The Outrunners have delivered cold weather essentials packs to Hackney Winter Night Shelter, and brought supplies to Food Banks. “If it’s arranged for them, people are really up for helping out,” says Tyler. “People are busy. One of my runners is a barrister, working insane hours. For her, coming to The Outrunners is a really important way of relieving stress. To be able to incorporate that with giving back, another thing she cares about, is really great – but it’s not something we do weekly. There is a community vibe to what we do, it is a crew, but people can drop in and out as they need.”

In a time of epidemic levels of anxiety, combining group exercise with good deeds can help people to feel they’re having a practical, palpable impact for the good. While certain commentators delight in stereotyping millennials as lazy, work-shy and self-obsessed, they are actually more likely to care deeply about social, environmental and political issues. Yet the vastness of many problems – for example, climate change – can feel a bit paralysing.

“There’s rising awareness of the horrific environmental crisis that we’re currently facing,” says Dermot Kavanagh, a 29-year-old personal trainer and the co-founder of Plogolution. A Scandinavian trend, ’Plogging’ combines litter-picking with jogging. On one plog through Battersea Park, 50 Plogolution ploggers scooped up over 100 bags of rubbish, much of which they could later recycle.

“It can sometimes be overwhelming, wondering how you can make a difference,” says Dermot. “I think that’s why Plogolution has been so successful – because people are able to see such a difference in such a short period of time. The double endorphin hit of working out and helping the environment has a very positive impact on all those attending.”

The success of Plogolution, Good Gym and others is testament to the fact that – although fiendishly busy – Londoners are hungry for a feeling of connection, and the chance to do some good in the world. And while combining good deeds with mood-boosting, stress-relieving exercise may not solve all of the capital’s injustices, step by step it makes London a fairer, friendlier and more positive place.