WHEN Ken Heathcote was a “rather weedy” teenager in Farnworth his dad sent him along to weight-lifting classes at the local King’s Hall to build up his muscles.
These early classes sparked an interest in fitness that started the young Ken on a journey that ultimately led to him opening the country’s first health club. During that time, Ken, now 78, earned the nickname “The Father of Fitness” — and this is the title of the autobiography he has just finished writing which is due to be published in October.
“It was in the days of Charles Atlas the bodybuilder and weight-lifting sessions were the only thing available to men’s fitness, really — women used to go to Women’s League of Health and Beauty classes,” he explained.
His father, Joe, a miner, insisted he went to Jimmy Halliday’s training sessions.
“Jimmy was a marvellous mentor and a remarkable man. He’d come out of Burma after the war weighing just six stone, but built himself up to take a bronze medal in the Olympic weight-lifting just a couple of years later.”
Young Ken enjoyed the weight-lifting, and the improved physical fitness it gave him. He was a bricklayer in the 1950s but was interested enough in fitness to set up gyms in his spare time in various school halls and other available places. One was in the cellar of the old Monaco club which later became Blighty’s nightclub.
In 1968, by his own admission Ken “took a chance”, quit his job and opened a gym in premises in Bank Street in Bolton town centre. Although this didn’t have all the facilties he later installed, it did have a few refinements on the average gym, including a Finnish sauna — innovative for the time. This caught the attention of Bolton Wanderers’ Nat Lofthouse, who had played in Finland, who was curious about this local addition to the fitness scene.
“Nat loved it, and the next thing I knew 17 of the Wanderers’ youth players were coming regularly to the gym including a young Gordon Taylor (later chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association),” recalled Ken. “That link with the Wanderers continued for 20 years and really made the business successful. Four years later, we moved to bigger premises in Mawdsley Street and opened Bolton Health Studio.”
The Health Studio was something new in fitness — a place where weight-training was on offer along with squash, a restaurant and aerobics’ classes.
“That was even before aerobics were well-known at all so it was quite different,” said Ken. As a result, the reputation of Bolton Health Studio quickly grew, often attracting sporting celebrities, and it became a model for how health clubs developed nationally.
Along with that business success, Ken himself became not only a respected trainer but a byword for fitness. He was a nationally-known figure after taking part in a solo world record attempt running from John O’Groats to Land’s End, covering 70 miles a day and filmed for the BBC’s Forty Minutes programme.
He celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, lifting 50,000 lbs in a series of exercises in 50 minutes, playing five world-class athletes at squash and ended the day by doing 500 sit-ups. His fitness journey took Ken to five world championships, 26 marathons, running 127 miles in one day, and climbing the Swiss Alps at 75 years of age after a knee replacement.
Along the way, he co-founded the Fitness Industry Association and pioneered the National Amateur Bodybuilding Association Training Course — as well as judging Mr Universe contests involving one Arnold Schwarzenegger and rubbing shoulders with sports’ legends like (Lord) Sebastian Coe.
When Ken, who lives in Bradshaw with Brenda and is the father of celebrity chef Paul Heathcote and successful businesswoman Karen Thorpe, decided to write a book about his life, he actually found himself faced with one of his life’s the most difficult tasks.
“I was up at 7am every day to write longhand for four to five hours, seven days a week,” he said. “It took me four months to write and then two months to sort out. Brenda did all the typing, and we drove each other mad.”
He admits that he is “very relieved” to have finished the book and is looking forward to promoting it via gyms and other fitness venues. Ken still attends the gym regularly but he prefers to have a swim and more gentle exercise sessions.
“These days, the warm-up kills me,” he joked. But it’s plain that the Father of Fitness could never really change his life-long habit, and his very large “family” of fitness devotees over the years are grateful for that.