It’s one of those perfect summer evenings down at the London Docklands. Warm and sunny with the gentlest breeze stirring the giant plane trees that line the banks of the River Thames.

Airplanes take off from the nearby City of London airport – transporting travellers on to new adventures – and Londoners across town finish up for the day, eager to catch the last of the sun’s rays.

But for Newham Leisure Centre’s general manager Vicki Read, it’s a different story. While most of London winds down for the evening, 44-year-old Vicki is just warming up – darting around Newham Dockside Park and shouting words of encouragement to her group of 12 ‘bootcampers’.

Vicki Read

To the uninitiated, this ParkLives session might look like any other military style fitness class you’ll find in the UK. Designed to give every muscle a vigorous workout, her forty-five minute classes are intense, invigorating and rewarding. But unlike the others, they’re totally free. Free and a lot of fun.

“I’ve fallen in love with coaching again,” admits Vicki, breathless and beaming. “To begin with, it was all about getting Newham residents active – into the parks and the community – but it’s hit a nerve with the locals and become a real pleasure for them. People are really grateful.”

And Vicki should know. She’s headed up the ParkLives sessions in the London borough of Newham since its inception, two years ago – when Coca-Cola first launched its national campaign to get one million people active by 2020.

In addition to Vicki’s free bootcamp classes on the Dockside, locals can visit 13 other park venues in Newham and take part in free classes as varied as Zumba, ultimate Frisbee, rounders, dog agility, circus skills, hula hooping and tennis.

The mix of activities has proved hugely popular. Since launching the full summer programme in July last year, Vicky estimates that somewhere between four and five thousand people have taken part in Newham’s ParkLives.

And the numbers keep growing. At today’s session is newbie Marley Laurent, aged 20, from East Ham.

“My mum told me about it so I thought I’d join,” says Marley, smiling. “This is my second time and I love it! You feel invigorated by the end of it – you feel refreshed. I’ve made some new friends too, you’re put in pairs so you make friends that way.”

Marley’s not the only one making friends. “I get messages from people saying they come for the socialising,” says Vicki. “We’ve got our own Whatsapp group.”

And some classes even provide useful opportunities for relatives to catch up. Vicki talks of a mum, daughter and aunty who all exercise together. “They don’t live together, but they all came to do sessions together. It’s lovely to see – you can just feel it, they chat and get on great, and when new people come along they always make sure they’re welcome too.”

There are 12 people at today’s session – each one determined to make it through the workout. A mix of ethnicities and ages, they present a neat sample of London’s multicultural demographic.

East Londoner Colette Lesforis is 42 and a regular. “I really look forward to coming now,” she says. “I come out and enjoy myself, it’s exciting to meet other people – and when you see them going faster than you, it makes you want to go fast as well.”

For Colette, the ParkLives sessions have brought both new friends and a newfound confidence. She feels “encouraged to exercise more”, has installed a fitness app on her phone and hopes her son will join her one day. “The best thing about coming is meeting everyone,” she says. 

And it’s not just the attendees who talk of this new community and growing confidence, for Vicki the sessions have been nothing short of transformative.

Having started her career as a personal trainer, Vicki became a victim of her own success, climbing higher up the management ranks until her job became more about writing reports than writing fitness routines.

“I’ve been in the leisure industry for over 20 years,” explains Vicki. “I moved into management and did less and less teaching, then ParkLives came along and I was asked to go back and teach for a while, to help them out.”

Vicki admits to being a little sceptical at first, unsure whether people would turn up or keep coming back – but she’s been very happily proved wrong. 

“They keep coming back, introducing family and friends and recommending people – and I get the chance to meet people I’d never have met, and discover parks I would never known, plus I get to teach again!”

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