Huddersfield’s Best Kept Secrets is a monthly feature kindly sponsored by entrepreneur and philanthropist Prof Graham Leslie CBE. Here we introduce SHAPEMASTER GLOBAL, a Honley-based company which is making a life-changing impact on the health and wellbeing of older people.

From its factory in Honley and offices in Salendine Nook, Shapemaster Global designs and manufactures power-assisted exercise equipment suitable for active, ageing people with limited mobility and those managing long-term health conditions.

Unlike traditional resistance fitness equipment, Shapemaster’s power-assisted exercise technology provides a ‘helping-hand’ to support safe and comfortable exercise and delivers life-changing results.

Shapemaster, founded in 1989, is headed by managing director Howard Blackburn, a Slaithwaite-born engineer who, for over 33 years, has dedicated his ingenuity and leadership to “keeping people fit and healthy in the second half of their lives.”

Having rescued the original company in 1989 to form the current Shapemaster Global, Howard has taken the company from strength to strength and there will new and exciting announcements over the coming weeks that show how Howard’s leadership has made a difference to the business and to people’s wellbeing.

One of Howard’s early inspirations was the story of his grandfather, a previously sprightly gentleman who retired to a care home in later life.

“I saw him change over time,” recalled Howard. “As everything was brought to him, he became less active and I saw him physically shrink into his chair, which was heart-breaking.

“I vowed to solve this problem, which is becoming more and more important as the years go by.”

The physical benefits of the equipment are life-changing for older adults. Oklahoma State University carried out a 12-week study on the impact of Shapemaster equipment on users aged 70+ and observed:

  • Improvements in muscle strength between 24% and 50%
  • Mobility and agility increased 22%
  • Balance increased 33%

Results like these provide potential for a health, social and economic game-changer, particularly as people’s attitudes to exercise are changing.

As the market moved away from the original concept of ‘toning tables’ that were popular in the 80s and 90s, the company redesigned its range to recognise that people wanted a more beneficial and sociable workout.

In 1999 Shapemaster created a seated range of fitness machines that encouraged a group exercise experience for gyms users and introduced increased accessibility for the rehabilitation, therapy and care markets.

By 2006, the machines became dual functional – providing strength benefits for the upper and lower body – which created a smart, time-efficient workout.

In the UK the company currently has equipment installed in around 100 operational sites and continues to expand its presence particularly in the leisure industry, with a recent drive for leisure to provide a health and wellbeing solution to support the NHS and social care.

The popular Health Shack in Almondbury, which complements its Shapemaster seated and recumbent exercise machines with a range of therapies and an infra-red sauna, says “everyone has the right to exercise.”

There are around 2,500 public sector leisure centres in the UK, all of which could provide an essential service to the community by including Shapemaster’s innovative exercise circuits for older adults to enjoy.

A flagship example is Lincs Inspire’s Wellness Hub in Grimsby Leisure Centre, which was recently awarded funding by Sport England and North East Lincolnshire Council to expand its Shapemaster circuits and attract hundreds more older exercisers to the centre.

Over the years Shapemaster has distributed equipment to leisure, care, rehabilitation and therapy centres all over the world, from just across the channel to France and as far away to countries including the US, Australia, Egypt and Africa.

The successful ‘Feelgood’ franchise, created by Howard in the UK and further developed by Zeizt, the company’s Norwegian distributors, was recently launched in the 50th site in Norway and is taking off in Germany and Austria. In other countries, international distributors are building Shapemaster’s presence in France, the Benelux countries, China and Australia.

Zeizt’s chief marketing officer Christian Bache said: “With Shapemaster’s innovative exercise technology, we are creating a movement for healthy, active ageing in Europe.

“As people are living longer, it is vital that together we lead the market in providing solutions for a fit and active later life.”

Shapemaster’s design innovations have evolved over the years, with the latest ground-breaking technology set to be introduced at this year’s Elevate show at the Excel in London later in June… in addition to further exciting announcements on their exhibition stand.

Despite the business disruption and lack of income during the pandemic, the company managed to invest in new staff and in research and development due to the careful leadership of Blackburn and his fellow director, Alex Dailly, over their years at the helm.

At the start of 2021, the business development team recruited colleagues in marketing and sales operations. In 2022, Shapemaster appointed Jon Hymus, the former commercial director of Serco Leisure, as their new commercial director.

Head of business development, David Heathcote, said: “We were fortunate to benefit from Jon’s strategic expertise through a Government-funded Northern Powerhouse/Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership programme.

“At the end of the consultancy, I had no hesitation in recommending to Howard that Jon would be a great fit for us and he had no hesitation in inviting him to join us.”

Shapemaster prides itself in being a knowledge-led company and the exciting new products set to be unveiled have been designed as part of investment in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and its ongoing partnership with the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University.

The future is bright for this ‘best kept secret’. With populations ageing around the world, exercise therapy is vital for managing long-term conditions, whilst providing an enjoyable and accessible gym solution for older adults.

Described as “the mother of all markets”, the over 65s ‘baby boomer’ population opens up a sustainable new market for gym operators and the retirement living sector around the world, and Shapemaster is the leading solution to meet their needs.

In light of this, Shapemaster is harbouring another huge secret that the company will be allowed to announce in the coming weeks. Watch this space!