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Ali Pisano/MEDILL

Group fitness classes help with motivation and inspire participants to achieve their goals.

No excuses. Get your body to boot camp.

by Rian Ervin and Alexandra Pisano
Feb 23, 2012


Rian Ervin/MEDILL

Fitness boot camps are a popular form of fitness for people looking for dramatic results from their daily workout.


Ali Pisano/MEDILL

Group fitness classes help with motivation and inspire participants to achieve their goals.

Despite the burn and commitment they demand, popular fitness boot camps are bringing in the recruits. Why are people so willing to forego an extra hour of sleep in a warm, cozy bed for a sweat-soaked T-shirt at 5 a.m.?

The 5 a.m. alarm rings. Birdie Bartholomew rolls out of bed, throws on gym clothes, grabs a quick bite to eat and runs out the door.

By 5:45 a.m., boot camp begins. Two straight weeks, 75 minutes a day of rigorous cardio, toning and stretching.

The result? A loss of four inches from her waist, a leaner, more toned body and jeans that fit better, Bartholomew said.

“It’s really a competition against yourself to see how hard you can push yourself,” said Bartholomew, 24, a men’s fashion consultant. “It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before. It was so much harder than I anticipated.”

Bartholomew’s first experience with a fitness boot camp happened this January at Barre Bee Fit, a Chicago fitness center that specializes in barre classes, ballet-inspired exercise that uses small movements for full-body toning. Bartholomew said her instructor and classmates kept her motivated throughout the grueling ordeal.

“I would absolutely do it again,” she said.

Despite the high intensity and commitment they demand, boot camps rev up fitness and motivation. Many people see the reasonable cost, level of instruction and dramatic results as a fair trade for lacing up their gym shoes before the sun rises.

“Economically, people are drawn to the fact that they are less expensive than personal training,” said Stephanie Turner, a professional fitness instructor in Chicago. Bartholomew’s boot camp averaged $25 per class while a personal trainer can cost anywhere from $50 to over $100 per hour.

During the spring and summer, Turner leads a “less intense” boot camp that meets four times per week for cardio and strength training and once on the weekend for yoga.

Because participants pre-pay, they are generally more compelled to go daily. Members of the boot camp group also count on each other to be there, building a support system.

“Boot camps are great for people looking for motivation and accountability,” Turner said.

In fact, the group exercise mindset is one of the greatest benefits to boot camps, according to fitness instructors.

And research backs them up.

A study from Princeton University found that rats that ran on a running wheel in a social setting had higher rates of neurogenesis, neuron growth in the hippocampus region of their brain, than rats that ran solo. The hippocampus facilitates memory rentention and transfer.

While scientists were unable to determine exactly why isolation led to slower neurogenesis, it was clear that the brains of rats in a group setting produced neurons at dramatically faster rates.

Just as rats probably don’t hold each other accountable for daily wheel running, the benefits of group fitness for boot camp recruits only extend so far.

Due to the relatively high participant to instructor ratio, “you might not get the 100 percent individual attention you’d get from personal training,” said Turner. “Also, the fact that instructors might not know what your physical or mental capabilities are can get a bit tricky.”

High intensity can be a risk for injury, especially when people push themselves beyond their limits.

Towards the end of her boot camp, Bartholomew said her foot began to ache. “A lot of barre is going up on your toes and doing really small movements, so I think being up on my feet strained something, or maybe pulled a ligament,” she said.

When the boot camp ended, Bartholomew said she needed to take a few days off from exercising to rest her foot, but she is now back at Barre Bee Fit at least three days a week.

Turner said that boot camps are ultimately very realistic for a person looking to commit to getting fit for an extended period of time, because they provide great structure.

Co-founders and owners of Barre Bee Fit, Jillian Lorenz and Ariana Chernin took all of these factors into mind when designing their boot camp.

Class size is limited to 14, and the instructor checks in with participants daily. Participants also have access to a nutritionist during the two-week sessions.

“It’s almost like having a coach who understands if they have any limitations and what their background is as far as fitness goes,” Lorenz said. This allows the instructor to help with any necessary modifications during classes.

“Personal training is so expensive nowadays that this is kind of, in a sense, a mini personal training session,” said Chernin. “It’s a great way to kick it up a notch and really get into shape.”