Call me old-fashioned, but my first reaction to the idea of shelling out a few hundred bucks for a fitness boot camp that requires me to wake up at 5 a.m. and perform deep lunges and endless push-ups before the sun rises just, well, isn’t a high priority on my spending list. Especially when said workout also involves some perfect-bodied instructor yelling at me like I’m an army recruit. I know I’m not good at doing push-ups—I don’t need a 5 a.m. reminder. So when a friend recently asked me to sign up for an early-morning boot camp with her, my first reaction was a polite “I’ll have to think about it.”
Yet somehow, from classes at gyms to expensive weeklong camps, these hardcore workouts have become a fad-defying fitness trend with staying power—and for good reason, I discovered after a little research. Studies show that boot camps can offer long-term physical and mental advantages. Does everyone reap these rewards, though? As someone who feels slightly averse to the whole idea, will I benefit by merely signing up and showing up? Or does it take certain a personality type to get the most out of a boot camp?
The American Council on Exercise decided it was also interested in this whole army-inspired phenomenon and conducted a study to look at just how effective these instructor-led workouts actually are.
Exercise scientists at the Exercise and Health Program of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, studied six men and six women ages nineteen to twenty-nine as they added a boot camp workout to their fitness regime. They found that the average exerciser burned about ten calories per minute during the workout, or about four hundred calories in just forty minutes.
“That’s obviously going to benefit you in terms of weight loss,” says Ashley Perez, a Bay Area–based personal trainer and boot camp instructor. “But it does more. In addition to a big calorie burn, you’re also building muscle, which makes it unique.”
Are You the Boot Camp Type?
Sure, it sounds great. But is it right for me? Perez says that certain types of people do tend to thrive in a boot camp environment.
Give It a Try If …
- You work well under pressure. Of course, every instructor is different, but this is boot camp, so “no pain, no gain” should be expected.
- You do your best work when someone else is looking over your shoulder and constantly pushing you.
- You’re not much of a self-starter. These classes, with their in-your-face instructors, give us a variety of moves and the luxury of having someone tell us exactly how to work out, and for less money than fancy personal-training sessions cost.
- You’re stubborn. “Stubborn people do great in my classes,” says Perez. “They refuse to give up, because they want to prove that they can do it.”
Consider It Carefully If …
- You’re someone who needs gentle encouragement and understanding.
- You get injured easily; the classes are high intensity and high impact.
- Your feelings are easily hurt. This is a tough-love environment.
- You have a problem with authority.
Fall into one of these categories? By all means, still give boot camp a try. Just don’t invest in a whole package until you’ve decided it really is for you. “There’s not a perfect personality type when it comes to enjoying boot camp,” says Perez. “It’s more about motivation. If you’re in it to make changes in your life, you’ll have a good time and see results.”
Choosing a boot camp workout also provides psychological benefits over, say, your usual forty-five-minute slog on the treadmill or elliptical.
- Sweat it out in nature: Many of these classes (like mine) take place outdoors. A growing body of research suggests that the simple choice of taking workouts outside leaves us happier, less stressed, and with higher self-esteem.
- Strengthen your willpower: Most of us rarely push ourselves as hard as we could during workouts. Boot camp instructors, on the other hand, do the pushing for us, teaching us that even when we think we’re spent, we’ve still got five push-ups in us. How’s that for a self-confidence booster?
- Enjoy group support: Everyone in class is going through the same pain, self-doubt, and triumph on the other side when they avoid passing out on the sweat-covered ground. “Group members who come often motivate each other to keep trying and coming back for more,” says Perez.
- Bask in variety: Most of us do the same group of activities on the job every day, and it’s easy to get into this habit at the gym, too. Boot camp participant Olivia Cheng was drawn to her program for this very reason: “I was so bored with the workout routine that I’d been doing for years,” she says. “I mixed things up by taking two boot camps a week, and I’ve started looking forward to working out again. I never know what to expect.”
Are boot-campers more likely to stay healthy and stick with their workouts in the long run? Perez believes that boot camp benefits work from the outside, in. “The willpower, self-confidence boost, and commitment are qualities that last,” she says. “These habits help people long after that last extra pound is lost.”
That said, a commitment to any truly challenging workout also provides many of the same benefits—as long as it provides the variety and challenge that characterize boot camps. The trick is to find one we love enough to keep at it, well, forever. One study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who stop exercising increase their abdominal fat by about 7 percent after only two weeks. (Yikes.)
“This is working for me right now,” says Cheng. “But the key is variety, so I’ll probably start something new if and when this starts to feel stale.” Now that you’ve got the lowdown on boot camp basics, maybe it’s time to shake up your own fitness regimen—what do you have to lose?