The AKR Fitness story: inspiration and fitness tips from Mike MacDonald

29 May 2020

AKR Fitness is on a mission to make fitness feel safe, fun and achievable for everyone, so that you can feel strong and confident in your life. With their small group personal training delivered by professional coaches in a friendly and supportive environment, the team has taken a different approach to many other gyms to help inspire and motivate people across the North East.

We have asked Mike a few questions about why he started AKR Fitness, what he loves about helping people on their fitness journeys and the highlights of his career so far - as well as some incredibly helpful fitness tips we can benefit from while our gyms are closed!

Why did you start your business?

I felt that the people who needed the most support were largely underserved by conventional gyms, which can be intimidating and uninspiring. The do-it-yourself model of fitness most gyms use is only really effective for the motivated few who know their way around the gym.

I wanted to help everybody else – those who didn’t like the gym, who had failed in the gym, or who had never even been in a gym.

What was the inspiration behind it?

Frustration, really. I’d worked in a couple of large gyms in the city and I felt these places were mostly just helping generally fit people get a little fitter – or stay the same. There was little-to-no coaching and support. I also felt that the gym atmosphere itself was big obstacle for people and I wanted to create a place where people could feel like they belong, regardless of their experience or current fitness levels.

When and how did you start your business?

I left my last employed role in late 2011 to go travelling in Latin America. I had been working as a gym instructor / personal trainer and when I came home in 2012, I started as a sole trader, freelancing in a large chain gym.

In late 2014, I wrote a business plan for AKR and from there it was about finding a way to raise the capital required and waiting for suitable premises to come up.

Fortunately, things worked out and the real work started in August 2015 when I signed the lease for the Arch at 18 South College Street.

What do you love most about your job?

Of course it’s extremely rewarding to see people grow in strength and fitness and confidence – that stuff is life-changing. But what I love most is seeing members of our gym connect beyond the gym. People who were strangers are now best friends. People who were alone are now a part of something. I might see a picture on social media of people doing something together – a walk, a gig, a night out (there was even a choir group) – and it’s amazing to think that AKR did that.

Why are you so passionate about what you do?

I believe that health and fitness is the ultimate make-your-life-better tool. You become stronger, happier, fitter, more energised and more confident, and the positive effect can ripple into every aspect of your life.

I want more people to experience that and I sometimes feel that much of traditional fitness and gym culture creates more obstacles than it does opportunities for people. We feel there’s a better way and that’s why we’re passionate about how we do things at AKR.

What’s been your biggest achievement so far?

In an antiquated industry, we’ve changed how things are done. We’ve made strength training achievable for men and women who feel daunted by free weights and intimidated in gyms. No longer are free-weights areas just for young males. At AKR around 70% of our members are women. A third of our members are women aged 45 – 65. Strength training is for everyone.

On the business side, we are one of only two gyms in Scotland to be awarded the Gold Standard Rating by the International Fitness Business Alliance - an accreditation that examines every aspect of our standards and service.

At last year’s National Fitness Awards we were named in second place as Scotland’s Gym of the Year.

What is something you’ve learned on your business journey so far?

Going from being a freelance personal trainer to a facility owner has been a massive learning curve. I’ve had to up-skill and grow in so many different ways, which has been challenging yet rewarding to reflect on.

I think learning effective leadership skills is crucial and something I’ll continue to develop, particularly as we’ve grown to a team of eight now.

What’s been the hardest / scariest part of starting your business?

The hardest part has been the relentless work. It has been an extremely demanding schedule for many years. Considerably harder than I could have imagined.

What’s been the most exciting or rewarding part of running your own business?

AKR means something to a lot of people. I find that rewarding. It’s rewarding to see people embrace the brand and the values we stand for.

I would also say our team. Giving people opportunities and seeing them grow, develop and thrive as part of our team is something I’ve enjoyed and find hugely rewarding.

Why do you think it’s so important for people to support local?

I think it’s good for the city. Having lots of independent, local businesses makes for a richer and more diverse and interesting place to live.

Running a business can weigh heavy. It can be a risky path and most small businesses are not nearly as profitable as people might assume. Many don’t last. If there's a business whose service or values you respect, supporting them over a large chain might just mean they’ll still be here for you tomorrow or a few years from now.

What are your favourite local businesses right now and why?

My girlfriend and I enjoy Muchacho and Figment Café. Both have great food, friendly service and a nice vibe.

Have you got any fitness tips or motivational words to help people who are struggling without the gym during lockdown?

Lots! But I’ll try to keep it short and actionable! The hardest part is getting started, so make it easy to get started by starting small. Do one squat, one push-up, one-minute of skipping or jumping jacks. Do something – anything! Just make it really easy to start. Oh, and start now. Because it won’t be any easier tomorrow.

Once you’ve done something, put a cross in the box for today. Use a wall calendar or similar to track the days you’ve done something. Aim to do a little something every day and try not to break the chain.

Also, walking is underrated. If nothing else, get out and move! Put on some music or a podcast if it helps, and just walk. You’ll feel better.

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