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An Audience with Father of Fitness Ken Heathcote

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Addressing an audience in Bolton School Arts’ Centre, eighty two year old local fitness fanatic Ken Heathcote told of his amazing life spent in the fitness industry, pioneering the first commercial gyms, laying the foundations for UK Active, helping set body-building standards and, as an octogenarian, still performing endurance fitness feats.

Interviewed by award winning journalist Angela Kelly, Ken spoke of “being very young when I was born” and told of his formative years as “a weedy kid” being brought up in Farnworth.  His father had been a boxer in his early days and instilled in him an attitude which he has kept with him all his life of: “Let’s just give it a try!” Starting out as a bricklayer, he took the first opportunity to join a gym, which in those days, was purely about lifting weights, there were no treadmills or other equipment.  He recalled how gyms only opened at nights because people worked during the day.  Before long he was driven to open his first small, cold gym on Bank Street in the town, at the back of Joe’s umbrella shop, but quickly realised he needed to move to larger premises. Opening his new gym on Mawdsley Street, he wondered if he had overshot as he tried to fill the 10,000 square feet of floorspace (the average gym was about 500/600 square feet in those days). By chance and necessity as much as anything, he introduced concepts and equipment that are now familiar to all gyms. With the help of relatives, he introduced a beauty therapist and salad bar to help fill the space. He also introduced equipment and ideas from the US that he had seen after a reconnaissance visit there. Nobody was making gym equipment in those days so he used the services of a local blacksmith. In his first year, he had 2000 people, half of them women, sign up as members.  In 1969 he had made contact with Nat Lofthouse after a Finnish sauna bath had been put in his Bank Street gym and before long Jim Conway and 17 apprentices from Bolton Wanderers (including Gordon Taylor) were regular clients. And so began a 22 year relationship with the town team as he looked after players’ weight training routines. His gym attracted many footballers and celebrities, including Francis Lee, Rodney Marsh, Phil Neal and Frankie Vaughan!

Ken, who is father of celebrity chef Paul Heathcote, also spoke about co-founding the Fitness Industry Association to give gym owners strength as a group.  After he had left, this went on to become UK Active which now has a turnover of £100m per annum!  He also told how he was involved in pioneering standards for body-building and recalled meeting a 19 year old Mr Universe competitor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who impressed him by saying he was going to become an actor in the US and although being non-American meant he could not become President, he prophesised becoming Governor of California.

Ken told how he had always kept fit and always tried to raise money for Cancer Research. He recalled how the BBC had run a documentary on him in his forties as he attempted to run 82 miles a day from John O’Groats to Land’s End. He also spoke of swimming being his passion has he has got older and recounted how, in his early eighties, he did three fundraising open water swims within 8 weeks across Lake Windermere and Lake Coniston. He told of setting out in a Force 6 wind to swim the full length of Windermere and how it took him 9 hours 55 minutes! He said that after 65 years of squash and weights, his work out is now in the pool, which is meticulously planned as his feet do not touch the floor for 1 hour 20 minutes and he maintains 60 strokes per minute throughout the session.

Ken’s new book “We’re Going to Live Forever” was on sale as guests enjoyed post-presentation refreshments. The evening was organised by the Girls’ Division Parents’ Association and funds raised on the night are to be donated to the refurbishment of the girls’ theatre.

The interview was recorded on the night and can be watched by clicking these links: Part 1, Part 2.

Further suggestions for another local hero for a future "An audience with..." should be forwarded to bsgdpa@gmail.com


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