Twenty-odd adults are standing in a ring, all facing a man whose well-
defined leg muscles are revealed by rather skimpy red shorts. A clear shade of red that is instantly recognizable to most Swedes, but perhaps less so to this bunch of Londoners. The shorts are Friskis&Svettis shorts.
With classes across London, the community-based “Swedercise” or “Healthy&Sweaty” classes have taken off in the British capital, thanks to a well-trained team of volunteers. Johan Wissinger, the man of the red shorts, is leading this Thursday night class in Angel, northeast London.
“For me, Johan is basically Mr. Swedercise,” says one of his students, Paul Sharpe, 36, who admits he almost bailed on his first class because he and a male friend were hopelessly outnumbered by women. But he has stuck with it.
“What I like about it is that is has everything, there’s the running and the push-ups, but also stretching, basically the stuff I wouldn’t bother doing if I went for a jog,” says Sharpe.
“We have about 500 members, especially expats in this international city, although about ten percent are Swedes,” Wissinger tells The Local.
He is one of seven Swedish instructors in London. Two Frenchwomen complete the mix – in France there is both a Friskis and derivative La Gym Suédoise, which has long been a trendy exercise form in Paris since it was introduced there twenty years ago.
“Our main competitor is the sofa,” says Wissinger, who started taking Friskis-like classes at university in Uppsala and who had just qualified as an instructor when his job took him to London in 2005. His long-term goal is to make sure the movement survives and thrives in England.
“We call it ‘Sweat and smile, Swedish style’ but our aim is to be rooted in the local community. There is no point in filling the classes with Swedish nannies who only spend a semester in London, we want Londoners,” Wissinger says.
The allure of Friskis is getting back to basics and working as a team.
“We face each other so it’s fun and you don’t have to look yourself in the mirror and worry about your fitness level,” Wissinger says, whose words are echoed by his workoutees.
“You can change the amount of effort you put in, so even if you feel a bit run down you can work out,” says Zoë McCarthy, a French-born Londoner.
Traditional Friskis is all non-profit and therefore costs a mere £5 ($7.75) per session – a key allure for McCarthy in the beginning, as she was in between jobs when she was first introduced to the exercise form.
Once the class is in full swing, there is little time for anything but keeping up with Wissinger. Where he gets his well-defined legs from becomes rather obvious as he is just about the only one in the room in total control of every lunge, crunch, and skip. Add to that some old-fashioned core work, plus sit ups and press ups.
Wissinger does it all with a smile, blue eyes ablaze with enthusiasm, while keeping an eye on the less fit among his followers to make sure they are not dying (aka The Local’s unsynced reporter who only risks dying from embarrassment).
The tunes are varied, and there is no Swedish top-of-the-pops agenda when it comes to getting the Friskis troops going, although Loreen’s 2012 Eurovision winner Euphoooooooria does accompany some very aggressive waving about of the arms towards the end of class.
“Music is very important in Friskis. You want to get up and jump about happily for a warm up, you want something slower and heavier for press ups and sit ups to bring out your strength,” explains Wissinger.
A few sprints later, it’s time for warming down and a hearty stretch or ten. By the time Wissinger gets his acolytes down on the floor, his playlist mellows, swapping to Visa från Rättvik, a classic from the Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson.
“And then something calm for the warm down.”