It’s no secret that feeling good in your gym outfit can boost performance — or at least help motivate you to go in the first place. Tamara Hill-Norton understood this innately when she founded Sweaty Betty 25 years ago. Tired of the masculine styles of the time, Tamara noticed the need for workout wear that mixed fashion with function. So, in 1998, Sweaty Betty was launched with exercise gear — and later, free community classes — designed to help women feel powerful and beautiful.
Twenty five years later, sisterhood and joy remain at the heart of everything Sweaty Betty does. That’s why, to mark the brand’s birthday, Refinery29 and Sweaty Betty are celebrating those we admire in the community: the game-changing women in fitness, wellness, sport, women’s health and activism who inspire us every day.
We think their work needs shouting from the rooftops, so we’ve gathered their stories here alongside their tips for driving difference in the fitness and wellness space. So you can read, follow and champion them too.
“I’m going to change the world with a hijab on my head and a ball at my feet” is Lipa Nessa’s mantra. Drawing on her experience as a former semi-professional football player, she’s on a mission to empower women from ethnic minority backgrounds –—specifically Muslim women wearing the hijab — to feel confident participating in physical activity.
“In 25 years, I would like to believe that sport will be seen as a resource to bridge the gap between communities, nations, beliefs, and faiths. You don’t need to speak the same language to play sport: it’s a universal language for all.”
The founder of Soul Body Retreats, Phoebe Georgiou, began her spiritual journey on a yoga teacher training course in Kerala, India, after an acid attack left her physically and mentally traumatised. She’s dedicated to helping people heal their traumas and regain their power through movement and breath.
“Believe in your voice and what you want to achieve. If you don’t believe it, no one else will.”
As a two-time blood cancer survivor, Georgie Swallow shares her experience with life after cancer, early menopause, mental health and body confidence to help empower people to embrace their bodies, know their normal and understand their health.
“My advice to anyone who wants to make a difference is to just start. It doesn’t matter if you feel you’re starting small by opening conversations with family or friends — what matters is you’re starting. The power of one person who wants to make a change for the better has more impact than they know.”
An avid traveller, photographer, and language enthusiast (she’s currently polishing up on her Spanish), Shukura Babirye started Moja Collective to share her love of the outdoors after struggling to find nature groups where she felt included. She aims to create “a welcoming and inclusive space for non-white individuals” where she can “show beautiful brown faces in nature.”
“If you want to make a difference, start by finding a cause or issue that truly resonates with you. Educate yourself, connect with like-minded individuals or organisations, and take action that aligns with your skills and passions. Remember that change often starts small, and persistence is key. Stay open to learning, adapt to challenges, and always believe in the impact of your efforts.”
“I hope that in the next 25 years, the fitness industry has more spaces like Strong + Bendy that reject the norms of traditional gyms,” says founder Rhian Cowburn. She’d love to see more spaces where people move for their mental health without the pressure to transform or change their bodies — and don’t even get her started on “transformation” challenges, which she says “send a clear message that there's a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to look.”
“An act of kindness can go [a] really long way. For some folks, it can be really intimidating to enter a fitness space — how you treat them can have a lasting impact and make an enormous difference.”
Motuke Katanda describes herself as “your go-to girl if you’re looking for an adventure.” She founded Litanga with her partner to create a community that encourages sharing cultural values to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“In the next 25 years, I want to own a retreat centre to help women during their pregnancy and postpartum journey. My advice is to be patient and flexible with your ideas. Don’t be afraid to change your approach, and never give up.”
Millie Gooch’s goal is to change how society thinks about drinking and the way we think about people who don’t drink. She hosts alcohol-free events, meet-ups across the UK, and workshops on sober curiosity, and is the author of The Sober Girl Society Handbook. “I would love to see more talk of drugs, alcohol, and addiction in the mainstream mental health conversation. It’s so often left out of the discussion, but substance use (at whatever level) can play a pivotal role in our wellbeing,” she says.
“Collaboration can be so powerful, so find the people who are passionate about the same thing you are and work together.”
Dearbhla Gavin, Sweaty Betty staffer
Dearbhla Gavin spent a decade in current affairs journalism before an ovarian cancer diagnosis rerouted her life. Today, she considers good health as the foundation of everything. Gavin works in customer experience and employee wellbeing, guiding yoga classes and recording meditations to support the Sweaty Betty team feel and be their best.
“As a result of my diagnosis, I won’t be able to have children, but it is not a huge ambition of mine. I’m also (happily) single at 31, and I don’t feel less adequate not having a life partner. I think being happily single can also be an ambition! Normalising the ambition to be childfree and single is a change I would really love to see.”
Milk Honey Bees is a creative and expressive safe space for young Black women to put HER (Healing Empowerment Resilience) first. Along with 20 other women, Ebinehita Iyere also authored Girlhood Unfiltered, an anthology of essays and letters reflecting on the experience of Black girlhood.
“Be [as] willing to learn as you are eager to educate, as real change comes through listening to those you are creating change for.”
Linda Agyemang, founding member of Black Girls Do Run, a community to inspire, encourage and motivate Black women to run
“My passion is helping women and girls to become active, develop confidence and achieve their full potential,” says Linda Agyemang, a keen runner and qualified coach. She wants to see more women from ethnic minorities represented in all areas of the running industry.
“My advice would be to take up the challenge and be the person who makes a difference and inspires others to do the same. The need is great, and so are the opportunities to make a difference.”
Afsana Lachaux, director of the Sweaty Betty Foundation and an award-winning women’s rights campaigner
“I have the coolest job in the world, and that is to help the Foundation,” says Afsana Lachaux about her role at Sweaty Betty to empower women and girls from every background to get active and stay active. “There aren’t many women of colour in leadership roles, particularly in the charitable and corporate sector. This needs to change. In 25 years time, I want to see the women and girls that we support through our work be leaders and changemakers.”
“Grab every opportunity and be fearless.”
A dream is what unites the young women and girls (ages 7 to 25+) in The I AM Collective, says Olivia Beckford. Through physical, mental and financial training, she helps them realise their potential — something she hopes to offer to more and more people by franchising her collective and opening schools abroad.
“I advise anyone who wants to make a difference to practise being the difference. If you’re in a position of power or you’re a master in your craft, offer mentorship, share knowledge, write a book or a guide. There are so many ways to make an impact, especially with social media.”
“Work hard, look for solutions, and if there are none, create them,” is Deirdre O’Neill’s advice for anyone who wants to make a difference. A dual-qualified lawyer with a master’s in medical law from King’s College London, O’Neill is the chief commercial and legal officer at Hertility Health. Her aim is to reduce diagnosis times and infertility rates and create a world “where women’s health is prioritised.”
“I want to see a change in how society views women and how women view themselves. A world of women empowered, liberated and cared for.”
Viv Jeffers’ role as the manager and lead coach of over 120 girls and women means she jumps between being a friend, agony aunt and cheerleader. This might explain why she has so many quotes lined up: “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, “patience is a virtue”, and “carpe diem” are among her faves. She wants better access to training pitches for girls and women, a bigger representation of females in football at a higher level, and more presence in the media.
“The advice that I would give to someone who wants to make a difference is [to] never lose sight — you need perseverance, self-belief, hard work, and PMA (positive mental attitude) to not only keep going but to stand up for what you believe in and keep fighting for what you love and enjoy.”
A health and wellbeing teacher, speaker, consultant and podcast host, Celeste Gardner advocates for equity, championing health education for all. Her podcast always ends with the question, “What do you know now that you wish you were taught in school?”
“The biggest difference you can make is by role-modelling your message day in, day out. You are a human BE-ing, so BE before you do.”
Clotilde Rebecca Abe and Tinuke Awe, founders of Five x More CIC, which campaigns for Black maternal health
South Londoners Tinuke Awe and Clo Rebecca Abe cofounded Five x More CIC after Awe’s difficult experience giving birth to her son. In 2020, they launched the petition “Improve Maternal Mortality Rates and Health Care for Black Women in the UK”, which led to Black maternal health being discussed in parliament for the first time. In 2022, they launched the Black Maternity Experience report, gathering data from over 1300 Black women — the most extensive report on UK Black women’s experiences of maternity services.
“We want the higher disparities in maternal outcomes for Black women to be eradicated and for all women's birthing experiences to be positive.”
It’s all about the four Ss for Molly Slater-Davison: creating safe, sweaty, supportive spaces where women can build their mental and physical health and develop confidence and life skills. “For me, TGR isn’t as simple as just getting girls running with us. It’s about the long-term difference I know TGR can bring to local communities,” she says.
“I want all women to feel empowered when choosing to exercise. Exercise should be a choice, not a chore and not a luxury. The wellness industry still has a lot to do to be inclusive, welcoming, and [to] reduce the barriers women face.”