fitness

Di Williams realised how women felt in gyms. Her solution is now worth $75 million a year.

Di Williams was in her early 40s when she spotted a wide, gaping hole in the market.

Of course, it would take her years to realise it was just that – a business opportunity leading her down the path of heading up a company with a yearly turnover of more than $75 million; one that would arguably change the fitness landscape for women in Australia.

In the early days, it was just a genuine, pure, innocent desire to help other women.

Women liked working out, that much she knew. Women struggled in “masculine” gyms, she knew that too.

So instead of fighting it, and trying to make a masculine space more welcoming for the women she knew and loved, she ducked around it completely. It was time to try something new, and that something would be a female-only gym.

It was 1989, and Fernwood Fitness was born in central Victoria.

“The main reason [I started it] was because women didn’t go into the weights room at the gym,” Williams tells Mamamia. “It was very masculine, and there were nowhere near as nice as they are today. But even today, it’s not a place where women want to be. The gym is a very masculine space…women didn’t, and don’t, feel comfortable.

“It wasn’t even a gap in the market, it was just something I thought women would love. It was just so popular that it grew that way.”

Long before we perhaps realised it in ourselves, Di Williams realised that very often, women found themselves “ogled”, “intimidated” and not welcome in the fitness space. So although her big idea – in creating a space for women where they could work out in a space that felt, well, safe – was genuine, it didn’t come without its criticisms.

Image: Supplied.

"Women aren't going there because they don't have confidence, but because it's a choice, it suits them, and it has a nice club feel where they feel they are part of a community," Williams says.

"[The initial backlash] ended up being a good thing, because we got a lot of free PR out of it."

For the last 27 years, Di Williams has had an intricate understanding of the way women work out, and how our attitudes towards exercise have evolved overtime.

"The thing I have noticed mostly about women is that they are a lot more confident. They understand they have to do something for their own self. It wasn't the case back then, you would go to the gym because you wanted to look good. Now it's a little bit more about mind and body."

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One thing that hasn't evolved, she says, is how busy we are. We have kids, parents to look after, places to be, work to work on. Time is our biggest enemy, and almost always, when time gets away, exercise is the first thing we give up.

Image: Supplied.

In fact, according to Jean Hailes Women's Health Survey 2017, approximately 60 per cent of women are not taking part in at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate physical activity per week.

It's for this very reason Williams has been named as the official ambassador for Women's Health Week (4th - 8th September), to encourage women to find that time.

"[Finding the time] has always been a challenge, but I think women put themselves first a little more than they did 27 years ago. But something inevitably happens that gets in the way of that and they just don't have the time. However, many don't realise if they do exercise they will have more time because they are more effective and have more energy."

Williams, too, notes how levels of anxiety and depression "are huge" today. Exercise has arguably never been so important.

The problem with saying “summer bodies are made in winter”.

With 90,000 Fernwood Fitness members, and over 70 gyms across Australia, there's no one better than Williams to recognise how women need to approach health and fitness, and why it's so paramount - no matter how little time we have - to ensure it stays part of our routines.

In 27 years, Williams has seen all kinds of women walk through the doors of Fernwood, looking for a place and a space that fosters their relationship with exercise in a gym that feels safe and female-friendly.

And in that time, she says it's hard to think of a single highlight. After all, when your core purpose is to make sure women feel comfortable doing the one thing that can maintain their sanity the most, then highlights come in waves. And lots of them.

"There has been so much feedback from the members and I think that has been the most rewarding thing about what I do," Williams says.

"What we do does change people's lives. It's not uncommon to for us to get a letter from a woman saying she wouldn't have gone to the gym otherwise, or from a mum saying her daughter's outlook has changed since she has been exercising and she is now a different person."

For more information about Women's Health Week, you can visit their website here.

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