A Conversation With ‘Patch’ About What It Means to Have a Good Life

David Patchell-Evans
David Patchell-Evans at the grand opening of the new Good Life fitness centre in Saint John. Image: Mark Leger/Huddle

David Patchell-Evans, founder and CEO of Good Life Fitness, discovered what it meant to have a good life after he had a serious accident in university and had to spend months in recovery and rehabilitation.

That experience inspired him to want to help others, and nearly 40 years later he has a nationwide network of 400 fitness centres. Patch, as he prefers to be called, just opened a new location in Saint John. Huddle editor Mark Leger dropped by to have a conversation with him.

What inspired you to become fit in the first place?

In my first year of university, I had a bad motorcycle accident that ripped apart the right-hand side of my body. I went to do physical rehab, and as I’m doing it some people in the clinic were also training for the Olympics. They’re training four hours a day and I’m in there for 20 minutes twice a week. So I said to the physio [therapist], ‘Is there a way I can get better, faster?’ You can come in more often and for longer [he said].

So within a month, I was going four hours a day. About six months later I was no longer disabled. My right shoulder was still four inches lower than my left, and I was still much weaker on that side but I had function in all my body parts. My arm still doesn’t go straight, but it’s almost there. And so then I started rowing on the rowing team to build up that side of my body.

I became pretty good rower – won five Canadian rowing championships, had a shot at the boycotted Olympics [in Moscow in 1980].

I was going to go to business school and I switched to physical education – kinesiology. I put myself through university running a snow-plowing business. That first year I had one Jeep and the second year there were two jeeps. By the time I was doing a Master’s [degree], I had five jeeps.

I was going to a club then as an athlete. The guy that was running the club said, ‘I’m losing my shirt. You should buy it.’ He asked me these questions about the business all the time. It was pretty obvious to me that he wasn’t running it right. So I bought his business with the money I made from snow-plowing and ran the club with a whole different attitude. I was in the business of getting people in shape. Those guys were in the business selling memberships. I had the academic background and the athletic background. We went from one club to two clubs to almost 400.

Were you an athlete before the motorcycle accident?

I guess I was athletic. I played hockey, I played football, I did some martial arts, stuff any teenager would do it. And then this kind of all fell into place.

What happened is the intensity of training from the motorcycle accident got carried over to rowing. When you start rowing most people go once a day, and I was committed to working out more often and harder. So I ended up becoming a good rower fast … from the accident I had this fascination that I could get healthier and in better shape, maybe this would be my career. I would help other people get healthier and in better shape. I was really intrigued by how I could do that for people. How could I turn back the clock for them? How could I get them into the best shape of their life? That’s really what became my reason for living. That passion has translated into these clubs.

In university, I took courses about how to help people get fit and stay fit and have excellent performance. So not only, how does an athlete do their best, but how does a person in a wheelchair do their best? How does a mother of five do her best? How does a six-year-old do their best? I was fascinated by, at each level, what were the unique scenarios. How do I find the unique ways that you can have the highest quality life. How do we make you live a long time?

Like back in 1979, when I opened that first club, I refused to let people smoke. If I could see their cigarettes I would throw them in the garbage. People would get mad at me and I’ve had so many people come back and say, ‘you saved my life.’ This is the right way to do it. It makes a difference.

Given your passion for helping people get well and get fit, you could have become a personal trainer. Why become an entrepreneur?

Back then, there was there wasn’t even personal training. When I started my clubs there weren’t even fitness classes. We were the first clubs in Canada that had fitness classes, the first clubs to develop personal trainers … I was an entrepreneur from the snow-plow business just from the way I thought. I really believed I had to do it right. When I got one right, I thought, ‘let’s do two.’ That entrepreneurial instinct was on fire. I wanted to be the best in the game.

How do you get people interested in fitness who don’t understand its true value?

I’ll ask people if they’ve ever been sick. They’ll say, ‘well yeah.’ Well, when you have a really bad cold your body’s operating around 80 percent. When you’re not fit, you actually have a really bad cold. You just don’t know it, because you’re so used to being sick and unfit that you don’t know the difference. But when you’re in shape, you say, ‘I don’t want to be sick. I don’t want to have low energy. I want to sleep better. I want to feel excited to do things. I want to be more flexible. I don’t want to get out of breath walking up the stairs.’ These things are possible that you didn’t know were possible. This is the idea: what are you missing and what can you gain [from exercising]?

If someone works out two or three times a week, they’re going to live nine years longer and have more energy. There is so much to be gained by [investing] so little time. People say. ‘I don’t have time.’ But if you don’t work out everything takes you longer. If you spend two hours a week working out in total, you’ll get back about 10-12 hours in energy – Joie de vivre and excitement. That’s what we do for people. That’s exciting.

I had a member of a club come up to me and say, ‘thank you, I’ve lost 200 pounds.’ Another woman came up to me. She was 89, and said to me, ‘thank you, this is what’s keeping me alive.’ She’s got a heart condition. ‘If I wasn’t able to come here I would have been gone a long time ago,’ she said. These kinds of things turn our crank.

Did you find that kind of personal motivation when you had the accident?

That’s where the appreciation came from. When you’re young and athletic, you don’t know what it’s like to be to be injured. All of the sudden, when you’re injured and you can’t do stuff, it wakes you up. When I was 32 I got severe rheumatoid arthritis. I couldn’t even open a door. Couldn’t turn a handle. I thought, ‘so this is what it’s like to be 90.’ That creates a high level of empathy.

So we can train people to go to the Olympics. We have more people training people for the Olympics at our clubs than anywhere [else]. But we can also train you on how to deal with your Parkinson’s, how to deal with your diabetes, how to deal with recovery from [having] your third kid. We have one wonderful couple that joined when they’re 85. They came in on canes. They’re 90 now and they walk to the club…These are the kinds of things we’re able to do for people.

Is there a moment where the name ‘Good Life’ jumped into your mind?

Yeah – 1989. I was driving down the 401 in Ontario. I was trying to think of a name for our clubs. We were called Number One Nautilus [back then] and I wanted a name that would epitomize where we wanted to take [our members]. I thought, ‘Good Life.’ That’s what I want to give people. I pulled over, phoned my lawyer, and said, ‘can you register this?’ The rest is history.