21 April 2017

Rethinking fitness and leisure centres

A foggy winter day at the lido
This week was the first since the cold war that I thought getting nuked was a possibility. "How does one cope with radiation sickness?" I thought to myself. Things are very bad. I believe that it is my adult duty to stare into the abyss and do what I can to stop anyone pushing the button, but I also need respite. I have been relishing mornings at a lido in south London where the water is heated and the surrounding trees in full blossom. There aren't many places in the city where you can immerse yourself in soothing water and stare at the clouds.

On Wednesday my peace was shattered by an outdoor spin class, surely one of the most miserable things you can do in the name of leisure, which led me to wonder why sports facilities and centres in the UK are a pile of cak, and needlessly so. I will share these thoughts with you.

Leisure centres in the UK are run by jocks with no sense of aesthetics. I plan holidays around pools I would like to visit on the continent. Müller'sches Volksbad in Munich, Therme Vals in Switzerland, Holthusenbad in Hamburg and pretty much all the pools in Budapest have found me padding around in my swimmers. They boast stunning architecture, they have a sense of place about them, they're unique and lovely to visit, usually the highlight of a trip. They often have a groovy café attached, where you can get well-made food, even a glass of wine or a brandy. At central European pools you can have a dip and a game of chess. But in the UK the architecture is usually so-so at best, older pools are rarely maintained and usually close in a state of disrepair, there seems to be no incentive to build or preserve something remarkable. Inside it might be a bit dirty and smelly, the changing area is uncomfortable, it's expensive and penalises the casual user because the place is run on a business model of hard-selling memberships, the atmosphere is banal. My local Morrisons can get it together to play Joy Division as I wander the aisles, yet a typical leisure centre soundtrack consists of bleak high BPM generic M People-sounding remixes.

At many pools your swimming choices are limited to lanes or family sessions. The lanes are about training to win, sport and its attendant nationalism and citizenship, or increasing one's athleticism. The family sessions are alienating to those of us who are not a family with kids. If you are an adult by yourself there is little space for social swimming, swimming expressively, mucking about, exploring, playing, bobbing or doing any kind of unorthodox movement that being in water enables you to do. You'll find that you're subject to the lifeguard's angry whistle if you try.

The focus is on athleticism not wellness, fun or sensuality. I don't care about swimming a fast length, I just want to feel good in my body. At Bartholomäus-Therme in Hamburg I went to a candlelight session with classical music and pool noodles. Underwater jets were switched on that swirled the group of mostly old people (they'd just had a water aerobics session) round and round, so peaceful, watching our reflections in the high mirrored ceiling for an hour or so. But in the UK shit like this is not allowed, to the extent that people can't handle it when it is allowed. I went to Thermae Bath Spa last week and was amazed by the awkward, stiff people horrified by their own public near-nakedness, unable to relax in the warm water, behaving as though they were at a suburban cocktail party with strangers.

Sports and leisure centres in the UK remain places where compulsive exercising and body dysmorphia thrive. It's back to the jock quotient again, these people can get your heart rate up on a treadmill but they are not equipped to deal with those who hate and punish their own bodies through exercise. Sports and leisure centres in the UK are like a haven for misery with a grinning-winning Go For It! face plastered on top. It's not uncommon to find services advertised on the back of body shaming whereas such places could be at the forefront of breaking it down.

Which brings me to access. Being able to winch someone into a pool is all very well, but you don't see it in use very often. If you don't have a certain kind of body, if you are vulnerable within a culture that values those certain kinds of bodies, you will likely stay away. Why would you go to a place where you might get stared at or treated as inferior? This is not just about body types but also about making places accessible to people who are "unfit," a term I hate. I would never take the spin class I saw this week because I know I would be subtly sanctioned if I couldn't keep up or needed to stop. Could I even fit on one of those bikes? Session leaders say that it's fine to take a breather but no one ever takes them up on it. This keeps away people like me and the kind of people I like or consider community.

There is no political impetus to make anything different. Policymakers can chug on about "tackling the obesity epidemic" but it's all hot air or sanctioning. I dream of public services and centres that are open to all, prioritise wellness and joyful embodiment, collective feelings, imaginative possibilities. You can see fragments of this in projects like Open Barbers, a not for profit hair salon that welcomes people of all genders and sexualities. Why couldn't this community sensibility be extended further? What if a leisure centre was an arts project? Or run like a really fab nightclub? An autonomous centre for intergenerational oddballs? A political meeting place? What an experiment that would be! And likely profitable/self-sustaining. You could cordon off an area for the jocks, the wannabe Olympians, the normals and all that family-friendly stuff, they could still come too.

2 comments:

Sleepydumpling said...

Sounds very similar to the state of Australian swimming pools - though ours are better maintained, probably because of the warmer climate. Those that aren't turned into gyms are otherwise entirely focused on children, and some are the worst of all - homes to "squad", which are swimming clubs focused on producing elite level athletes. Any public pool that has in the past produced one Olympic swimmer is forever lost to "squad".

As swimming pools are supposedly council facilities in Australia, I once complained to my local council because the pool within walking distance of my home was openly hostile to people who just wanted to have a bit of a dip and bob about, focusing entirely on squad. The answer I got from the local council? "Council pools are run by a private tender who is under no obligation to open the facilities to the public."

Public pools are not obliged to open to the public??

His suggestion to me as an alternative was that I should travel several kilometres away on public transport to go to a different pool, instead of the one I could walk to from my home.

My current neighbourhood is currently facing a hell of a fight to keep the private business running the local pool from turning our community friendly ocean front swimming pool into another massive gym complex, both removing access to the general public and cutting off a sizeable swathe of the public ocean front parks to both the public and the houses and businesses across the street.

It feels like public pools are a lost cause in Australia. When I was a kid, they were accessible to almost everyone, with set hours for laps, some set hours for learn to swim classes and other hours for general community use. It's sad to see that gone.

I did really enjoy going to thermal pools in New Zealand that are entirely focused on relaxation and general therapeutic benefit. Another of the many reasons it is my aim to relocate to NZ in the coming years!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for this outstanding comment SD. I was thinking of Australia a bit when I wrote it. My experience of pools in and around Sydney was very pleasant, but I hear what you're saying, there were lanes and nothing else, it would have been different had I been with others. I did go to quite a few sea pools and the vibe was a bit different there. I do wonder if the Olympics has a lot to answer for in the transformation of pools from leisure into training. Good luck in NZ.