Independent gym owner Nick Whitcombe has become a fitness industry campaigner of international renown, since refusing to shut his gym in the October tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool.
Whitcombe’s campaign has made him something of a media sensation: featuring on the BBC’s Panorama, (9 November), with a page of coverage in The New York Times, and his reach has stretched as far as Russia Today.
He’s receiving up to 15,000 social media messages a day from people in the industry and well wishers supporting his cause. As a result, pinning him down for an interview was a bit of a challenge, but he managed to squeeze in a quick chat between talking to industry captains and MPs. “It’s a crazy situation,” he says, seemingly bemused that all of this is happening to him.
In case you missed the story breaking, Whitcombe refused to close his bodybuilding gym – Body Tech Fitness – when Liverpool was placed under tier 3 restrictions, despite multiple visits from police and being issued fines.
Using scientific data to back up his decision, he countered that he needed to stay open for his members’ physical and mental wellbeing.
“With 62 million gym visits across Europe with only 487 confirmed cases, we’re not adding to the problem, we are part of the solution,” he says.
Whitcombe’s campaign quickly gathered momentum, with industry heavyweights getting behind it, as well as receiving support from local MPs. A petition reached 600,000 signatures in less than a week, and a gofundme page to pay fines and legal costs raised £55,000 in six days.
Now, as we’re in the second lockdown, Whitcombe is at the heart of a second campaign to get the health and fitness industry classified as an ‘Essential Service’, which would mean it can stay open during lockdowns and be a fundamental pillar to support the NHS. “Everyone’s on board in this campaign. We’re working with local MPs, ukactive, sports and nutrition companies and the big players like Grenade, Pure Gym and Gymshark,” he says.
“I’ve been in the industry for a decade and it’s the first time that I’ve seen it truly unified from the top to the bottom, which I think is a silver lining to come out of this situation. We’re all standing together now – independents, corporates, suppliers. This is testament to the magnitude of the situation.”
Whitcombe is deeply frustrated at the enforced shutdown of the health and physical industry: “The suicide rate is at an all time high. The depression rate is double that of last year. Our members are missing out on the physical and mental benefits of a workout.”
Whitcombe says that rather than focus on getting the decision to close gyms overturned, he is putting his energies into the campaign to have the health and fitness industry classified as an Essential Service which supports the NHS. Long-term this would be a phenomenal accomplishment and have a far reaching impact.
He wants to see a Work Out to Help Out scheme, to help avoid the deterioration in mental and physical health the second lockdown is sure to bring.
“Prevention is better – and more cost-effective – than cure,” he says. “The government doesn’t always listen to logic, but they will listen to budgets. So if we can show them how we can stem the drain which lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, put on the NHS, they may comprehend how our industry can genuinely protect the NHS. No other sector can support it as we can.”
Whitcombe launched his gym in 2013, coming into the industry from an acrobatics and Parkour background – he was a former stuntperson, working for big hitters such as Redbull, Nike and Adidas. He says he comes from a very accepting, non-competitive culture and was keen to bring that ethos into his gym. As a result, members are encouraged to be social – get to know each other, connect on social media and share advice.
“For me, as one of the little guys, being part of this industry movement is insane,” he says. “It’s been absolutely crazy to have emails from the titans of the industry in my inbox. It’s like the local takeaway chatting to the CEO of McDonald’s! It’s never happened before. It’s not testament to me, it’s just a demonstration of the magnitude of the situation. I think we’ll make history in the sector.”
Despite his evident disappointment, concern and frustration, Whitcombe is truly encouraged and invigorated by the spirit of co-operation and collaboration which is running through the industry: “It used to be us versus them, but now the big boys are playing with the little businesses and if we continue to collaborate we can be even more successful as an industry,” he says.
“The beast has awakened,” he continues. “I don’t think the government has ever appreciated how influential our sector is. The unification of our sector is a victory because it will really benefit the country. If we’re on the Essential Services list we can support the NHS with their overall goal, which would be a fantastic outcome.”
• You can join Nick’s petition at www.HCMmag.com/whitcombe