This Girl Can shed embarrassment as well as pounds

November 03 2017

A GYM in Staple Hill is leading the way in challenging stereotypes surrounding exercise and women's bodies.

A GYM in Staple Hill is leading the way in challenging stereotypes surrounding exercise and women's bodies.

Impact Gym is part of  Bristol Girls Can, which aims to break down barriers around exercise and inspire more women to get active.

The gym, in Hayward Road, is running a free eight-week course with funding from Bristol City Council and is attracting more than 80 women to each session.

Soeli O'Hagan, 34, (inset) who is running the one-hour classes, said: "The women are every single age, shape and size you can think of. There's a seven-year-old who is tiny, a 40-year-old who is a size 22 and everything else in between.

"The fact that the sessions are girls-only has been a massive deal breaker for them. One of the ladies comes to the gym for nutrition advice but has never done one of my classes before because she was too self-conscious. The fact that she is doing my classes now is a huge deal and I'm proud of her."

Soeli said there were numerous, and sometimes very complex, reasons which prevent women from exercising, particularly in a gym.

"I'll train anywhere but some women get shy and feel everyone is looking at them. They would be embarrassed if they can't do something or might feel embarrassed if they sweat. There are lots of blockers why women won't take part in classes but from the second week of this course, everyone realises that they are all in it together."

Soeli, a mum of two, teaches her own gym method she devised called Amazon, a form of combat conditioning.

"Before I got injured I used to do martial arts and created a fitness programme for everyone who didn't do martial arts but wanted to train like a fighter. 

"It's really hardcore and there's lots of moves that you would use to get fit for fighting, like a bear walk or a forward roll, basically moves that wouldn't usually be used in HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes, where you are really active for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds. With Amazon, I'm the timer so if I think someone is doing well I'll keep going and going until I think I've got the very best out of them. It's all about mind-set because you can't count your way through it because you don't know how long I'm going to do it for. The Bristol Girls Can sessions are for beginners, so I'll use more breaks than I usually would."

It sounds very serious but Soeli maintains the women have great fun, which is why they come back week after week.

"They're always smiling! I get them chanting, cheering and shouting. It's tough but fun, with lots of moves that you would use for boxing or wrestling."

Having piled on five stone during her pregnancies and having depression after her second child was born, Soeli understands how women feel about their bodies.

"My favourite thing is to train women that are struggling with confidence issues. Seeing them smiling and buying new sports clothes because they've lost weight is fantastic."

She has been staggered by how successful the Bristol Girls Can campaign has been.

"The campaign has been brilliant for getting girls doing stuff that they would have never tried before. It's a brilliant initiative. have massive respect for all the girls at Impact Gym and I'm super proud of them."