David Hunter (left) with co-author Kevin Boyle
We all have our own personal histories and relationships when it comes to exercise. For me, this wasn’t a particularly conducive one at school. As an adult, I had an on/off relationship with the gym but never really enjoyed the experience. In 2013, I found myself running with Glasgow FrontRunners (GFR).
In 2018, I wrote a blog for the GFR website about my experiences with the club and my journey from complete beginner to successfully completing a marathon. It was in the writing of that blog that an idea emerged. I had experienced a range of emotions (anxiety amongst them) going along to GFR for the first time. If I had felt like this, how had others? What were the things that motivated people to come to a club like GFR in the first place and what was their experience once there? Whilst knowing this would be useful to help grow the membership of the club, there was another angle – the lack of academic research around LGBT+ individuals in general and specifically in relation to their experience of exercising with a peer group. This led me, and Kevin Boyle – a founding member of GFR, to undertake a piece of original research.
We interviewed 12 GFR members to explore their experience of exercising with a peer support group. The overriding finding from our research was that exercising with peers represented a healthier way to meet people. We discovered that running improved participants’ physical health – no real surprise there. However, equally important was that being part of the club also impacted positively on participants’ mental and social wellbeing. People come to a club, like GFR, because they are looking for the mental and social wellbeing benefits just as much as improving their physical fitness. We know that exercising can help with mental health issues. Doing it with a peer group enhances this by offering additional support.
It was the emphasis of the social aspects of the club that were the most surprising part of our research. The participants really wanted to make it clear that the social connections the club provided was major part of why they kept returning. People wanted to join a sports club with others who identify as LGBT+. They wanted to be part of the community but not necessarily in an environment focused on alcohol. The sense of connectedness to other LGBT+ people was a real positive and, for some, this has resulted in romantic relationships being forged. Representation was also really important. For those still coming to terms with their identity, seeing other LGBT+ people and being able to share stories and experiences was valuable. Feeling safe and comfortable to be able to disclose things about themselves enhanced their overall wellbeing. This was of particular relevance to one of our participants who is from a BAME background and who had no desire to meet other LGBT+ people in a pub or nightclub.
So, what is the point? Sports clubs, like GFR, where LGBT+ individuals and their allies can meet and exercise together are important. They offer additional benefits to overall wellbeing that are, perhaps, harder to achieve when exercising on your own or in a traditional gym or club environment. Our research highlighted that when LGBT+ individuals exercise with a peer group, they find improvements in their physical, mental and social wellbeing. The challenge for clubs is to take steps to help alleviate those initial anxieties that potential new members may experience when coming along for the first time.
The findings of our research were published in the British Journal of Nursing in 2020:
Hunter, D. J. & Boyle, K. (2020) “A healthier way to meet people: the experiences of LGBT people exercising with a peer group.” British Journal of Nursing, 29(18), pp. 1068-1073.
The original version of this article appeared on the LEAP Sports Scotland website in February 2022.
About the author
Dr David Hunter (he/him) is a Senior Lecturer in Adult Nursing and Healthcare at the University of the West of Scotland. As a Registered Nurse (Adult) for over 20 years, David spent the first half of his career as an Emergency Department nurse, before he moved into education. He has published multiple journal articles, textbook chapters, and presented at various conferences. David has been a member of Glasgow FrontRunners since 2013, serving on the organising committee in various roles over the years. He became a qualified jog leader in 2016.