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A photograph from FitMams, ran by Live Well North East. A group of woman stand in an exercise class together, they have their hands raised above their heads and they are holding drum sticks

While there are many people who might make excuses to avoid breaking a sweat, there are others for whom exercise is a vital stress buster, so when you have the care of very young children to consider, it can be an extra challenge to get that much-needed boost of endorphins. That’s where one organisation supported by County Durham Community Foundation comes in, with a project designed to solve that exact problem, and offer a whole load of other benefits to boot.

‘FitMams’ from Live Well North East, a Community Interest Company based in Sacriston, started life five years ago as a single evening class at a local school hall, with a dedicated area set up for children to play while their parents did some exercise.

Fast forward to today and ‘FitMams’ operates from Live Well North East’s dedicated community venue, The Live Well Centre, which welcomed its first visitors just as the world was starting to open back up after lockdown. A varied timetable of five weekly sessions, which despite the name attract Dads as well as Mams, includes yoga, legs, bums and tums, and boxing-inspired rock-box, which uses boxing moves to music to provide a total body workout.

Something for everyone

Alongside these inclusive and fun classes, which range in duration so there’s something for everyone, free childcare is provided in the venue’s downstairs community room, where lots of play, learning and development takes place.

Live Well’s Managing Director Emma Pattison explained: “We always had the aim of removing barriers to access when we founded the organisation, and we knew from what members of our community were telling us that childcare was a huge barrier to local people feeling able to enjoy regular exercise. It was a barrier for me when my kids were younger.”

Although Emma did manage to attend some exercise groups with her baby in tow, settled in the portable car seat where they could easily be seen, this wasn’t a practical solution for very long, as children become more mobile and more active. Plus, many exercise venues simply don’t have the space for many parents to do this. So, the dedicated space at The Live Well Centre is ideal.

Emma continued: “All our staff have both childcare and education experience, giving our parents peace of mind that their little ones are being well looked after, so they can focus on enjoying some ‘me-time’ in the company of other parents. That connection with other people and particularly other parents is vital, especially as some may experience isolation while their partner might be out at work, and adult-only conversation can feel quite rare when you have young children.

“We are hearing this is a lifeline.”

But Emma, who trained in psychology and is particularly interested in holistic wellbeing, along with her co-founder Debra Forth, whose background is in fitness, says that ‘FitMams’ is typical of Live Well North East’s whole family approach to wellbeing.

She said: “We always wanted to create a hub where people could do activities to stay well, and that doesn’t stop at the end of the exercise class, as many of our parents stick around for ‘Cuppa Time’, giving their kids a chance to keep playing and engaging with our staff while they get to catch up socially after the session, gaining peer support, and sharing life stories and concerns.

“Some of our regular ‘FitMams’ attendees have become firm friends who really understand one another. They support each other in class, and then make plans for play dates in between sessions, helping further combat isolation for them as well as their children.

“Many of the children whose parents are part of ‘FitMams’ have never been left before, so the fact the Child’s Play session is on site is a real benefit to parents who might be nervous to be away from their child, and for the child it provides the opportunity for vital social development. We also have Wellbeing Coaches on hand should they be needed, but it can help break separation anxiety before a child goes to nursery.

“Our aim is always to provide physical, social and emotional support under one roof. People may come to us for one reason but because we offer other services there’s often loads of other things they’ll tap into, such as school holiday provision or sessions on emotional health, such as mindfulness tools and technology.

Bringing people together

“But there’s nothing else like ‘FitMams’ so word has got round. Now we’re finding some of our parents are travelling to us from the other side of town, and some are even bringing their own parents! It’s great as more and more new faces are coming through the door. It’s just been fantastic for bringing people together.”

However, aware that travel costs can be prohibitive for many local people, Emma and the team, who welcome around 2,000 visitors a year to the centre, and also go into schools and youth groups as part of their current outreach offer, are hoping to secure further funding support to allow them to cover the cost of transport for those that might need it, and they’re also looking into extending their outreach programme to take ‘FitMams’, and some of their other classes, out into local communities.

Emma said: “The funding we’ve had from the Community Foundation has supported the Child’s Play sessions, and allowed us to put on more classes, but we are definitely feeling the pinch, with each exercise class costing around £55 to run, and our community very much includes the whole staff team, so we’re trying to support them with continually fair wages during this cost of living crisis.

Giving access to wellness in uncertain times

“We’re seeing more and more people struggling to pay for sessions and people will put their own health and fitness at the bottom of their list of priorities. This is a really stressful time, but we’re determined to find out where people need us and to bring social, emotional and physical activities to them.”

Live Well’s approach to whole family wellbeing support means around 600 people a month access the organisation’s many services, and as well as making exercise and physical activity fun, engaging and achievable with low-cost classes, funded passes, childcare, help towards travel costs and opportunities for people to socially interact, Emma and Debra are now looking into emotional health ambassador training to help boost young people’s resilience.

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