I was one of those kids who quit gym class as soon I could.
I got great marks in school, won public speaking contests, loved to dance to tunes on the radio – but, oh, the torture of phys ed. Likely the only reason I didn’t flunk Grade 9 phys ed, a mandatory course, was the fact I aced all the written health tests that made up a chunk of the grade.
The closest I got to sports achievement? For some odd reason, I was good at underhand volleyball serving as a kid and was put on my grade-school volleyball team. I was rotated in to serve and then discreetly rotated off the court as soon as the coach could manage as I wasn’t great at the rest of the game. By the time I got to high school, people were using power overhead serves, something I never mastered, and my team sports career was over.
While I enjoyed moving to music, and took kiddy ballet classes, I had almost no flexibility and no physical capacity to train seriously in dance.
In my high-school years, I did keep physically active – warmup stretches in theatre classes, walking, biking. When the Jane-Fonda-era aerobics craze hit, that was something I could manage. It felt close enough to dancing and you didn’t have to be able to do the splits.
During the post-school years, there was a bit of cross-country skiing, more walking. Once, I tried playing a supposedly friendly pick-up game of volleyball with work colleagues, got scowling hisses for missing a shot, and thought: I just can’t do this. Life it too short to endure the judgmentalism of those who are athletic against those of us who aren’t.
GoodLife Fitness, a Canadian company now the fourth-largest gym chain in the world, has become such a success because they have figured out there are more people who grew up hating gym than those who grew up loving it.
The company, which began in 1979 in London, Ontario with one facility, has grown to 375 clubs across Canada with 1.3 million members. That’s one out of every 28 Canadian residents. The company is still run by its founder, former rowing champion David Patchell-Evans, and still has its headquarters in London.
In 2016, he told London Free Press reporter Hank Daniszewski that, while GoodLife keeps getting challenged by U.S. gym competitors, GoodLife withstands (and sometimes takes over) the competition because they have a different approach: what’s known as the “no judgment” policy, to accept and encourage everyone to exercise and be healthier, regardless of what shape they’re in now. “Our company is run with Canadian values: caring is the No. 1 criteria,” Patchell Evans said. “That’s not the criteria of our [U.S.] competitors. They run like [Donald] Trump.”
My first trip into a GoodLife was to attend something called a Flow Class – “a combination of Tai Chi, Yoga, and Pilates,” the instructor will tell you, every time. I had been going to weekly yoga classes elsewhere, by then, and a friend who went to the yoga studio and to GoodLife said I’d like the Flow classes. She was right. I could handle this. Eventually, I got a membership.
One of the appeals is that it’s relatively inexpensive: if you work for a company or institution on GoodLife’s corporation list, you can pay a lump-sum yearly fee that works out to less than $10 a week, tax included. It covers access to weight machines, free weights, cardio machines, and a wide range of classes. Also appealing is the presence of GoodLifes in almost every Canadian community. Beyond my home spots in Stratford and Toronto, I’ve been to their gyms in Halifax (vacation), North Bay (my partner’s high-school reunion), London (visiting friends), Windsor (visiting relatives) and Waterloo (ditto).
While GoodLifes have common branding, no two are alike: the company fits gyms into existing commercial spaces and, where they’ve bought another chain of gyms and flipped those spaces into GoodLifes, there might be additional amenities, such as a climbing wall, not found in the other gyms.
GoodLife has had its controversies, mostly around treatment of the many trainers and class instructors who have to pay for upgrade courses and certifications out of pocket, among other issues: a group of trainers in Toronto unionized in 2016. There is also pressure on staff to sign up members for personal training, boot camps, and other pricier offerings.
At one point I went whole-hog on the GoodLife experience, deciding to face my fear of the mounds of metal out in the weights and machine area. I got a personal training package, which is where the real money gets made at GoodLife, as a short-term trainer package runs more than a year-long membership. And I did make progress – look! biceps! – before the day I was on a weight machine, with the trainer guiding me, and we both heard a “snap!” from my right shoulder. Rotator cuff tear. Bugs me, still, years later. I backed off and now confine my less-frequent gym trips to classes such as Flow, Step, or Attack! (a lot of running around). Back to things that can seem like dance. No judgment.
Main photo: Chris Moorehead