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When Exercise and Health are Not Synonymous: Are boot camp classes bad for you?

Posted Jan 16 2012 1:03am

Our “boot camp” class on Saturday! Yes, my interpretation of boot camp was to wear a frilly pink tennis skirt with a top that made Gym Buddy Jeni ask, “Are those feathers?!” Also, Lindsey (to my right) pointed out that she and I look more like jolly pirates than soldiers. I love us.

Boot camps, the real U.S. military kind, frighten me. My first boyfriend was a boy with more piercings than appendages, who liked to punch brick walls until his fists bled, and ran with the cross country team as his warm up for daily double-digit runs. I tell you this not to brag about the fact that I know what it’s like to kiss someone who could spit with his mouth closed but to show you that whatever he was, he was not a wuss. And yet when he enlisted in the army straight out of high school and went away for basic training, he came back to me a broken man. We broke up not long after and I credit the military for some of that. He was different. Harder in some ways, more vulnerable in others, but not at all the person I remembered.

I figured he’d been gone for a few months running around with a backpack, doing push-ups in the mud and getting yelled at. But he quickly disillusioned me and I’ve never forgotten what he said next: “The army doesn’t care about push-ups. The whole goal of boot camp is to break you down so they can build you back up into the soldier they want you to be.” What does that mean? He continued, “They want you to be in as much pain as possible. Physically they make you run until you puke. But even worse is the mental stuff. They make you watch videos of real people getting blown up so that you won’t lose it if you see it happen in real life.” And with that he refused to tell me anything else.

I was reminded of this when I came across this post “ The Problem With Boot Camp Training ” by Michael Allen Smith. Smith, like my ex, is an alum of the U.S. military and because of his experience with doing the real deal he makes some very good points about why boot camp fitness classes – the fastest growing type of fitness class in 2011 – are a bad idea. He writes, “Basic Training was never about turning lumpy out of shape middle aged people into warriors. [...] the function of Basic Training is not about designing optimal athletes or getting lean. It is about building soldiers willing to kill or be killed in defense of their country.”

This functional misunderstanding of the purpose of boot camp is the reason why boot camp training is a problem, Smith contends. He points out that thanks to the military’s rigorous pre-screening standards “soldiers are ALREADY LEAN AND HEALTHY before they ever started Basic Training. And it wasn’t Basic Training that made them lean and athletic. For most soldiers it was youth. (emphasis his).” He adds that people who fail basic training are simply removed from the program. Personal trainers who teach boot camp style classes are not getting a select group of the athletic young and neither can they fail people (unless they want to lose money). “Training an overweight woman in her 30s that just had a baby as if she were an 18 year old infantryman doesn’t make sense to me,” he concludes.

Then Smith adds one last thing that surprised me. “Something I’ve noticed about the type of person attracted to Boot Camp style training is they often have some self loathing issues. They hate their body. They feel their past failures with other programs were their fault. And as a way to undo their past sins, they will pay some personal trainer to put their body through grueling military style workouts as a form of punishment.” As a girl who just did a boot camp style workout on Saturday and loved it (thanks Turbo Jennie!) and who, admittedly, has struggled for most of my life with “self-loathing issues” I had to sit with this one for a while.

He may have a point. But I also think he’s missing some pieces. A big one, for example, is the fact that many (most?) boot camp classes really have nothing to do with military style training anymore. The trend may have started with drill sergeants and push-ups but these days “boot camp” is simply an umbrella term for anything, well, hardcore. At my Y alone, we have high-intensity interval style boot camp (what I did on Saturday), strongman boot camp that involves tire flipping and heavy ropes, circuit training boot camp that incorporates weights and cardio and the regular boot camp class that encompasses everything from sprints to basketball drills to using kettlebells in the pool (yes, seriously, you can use kettlebells in the pool!). On TV I’ve seen wedding boot camps, bikini boot camps and boot camps for kids.

But in the end, I agree with his point that we don’t need to kill ourselves with crazy intense workouts to be healthy. In fact the research has repeatedly shown that moderate consistent exercise increases health in every measure but too much or too intense exercise, as described in this recent study of marathoners , weakens us and makes us more likely to get sick. And of course I have learned this myself with my struggles with overexercising. A recent, powerful,  comment  from Tanya last week on one of my old over-exercising posts highlights the unique impact this has on women in particular:

“After two years of fighting my body to perform, I started noticing problems. Unusual tiredness, head aches, brain fog, confusion and memory loss. I couldn’t put on weight and I also couldn’t lose it either; severe acne that would leave scars and the most frightening for me was when my periods completely stopped.

I went to the Dr. and asked for tests to be done. I had fought so hard and for so long that FSH (hormone responsible for egg release from the ovaries) had failed. My estrogen and testosterone levels had bottomed out, and I also had high prolactin levels due to an underactive thyroid. Like you, I had never had an underactive thyroid until exercising. [Charlotte's note: One of the worst effects of my compulsive over exercising was discovering after gaining 10 pounds in one month that I had suppressed my own thyroid .] So for me to see the test results, I was flabbergasted. To top it off we also found tumours sitting on the pituitary gland, which had been aggravated further by the exercise regime I had given myself.

Since then, I am still finding more problems. Early onset bone loss and to this day my period has not returned. It has been two months since I have been to the Gym (which is VERY unusual for me) and I feel very uncomfortable. One month ago I started to notice the scales elevating in weight – But I know within myself now that my body would not be able to cope with the added stress now or in the near future.

I’m now getting ready to receive treatment to get the HPA axis of hormones back into order. BUT I can’t do that without rest, proper nutrition and very “light” physical exertion (casual walking). I’ve been told anymore than that could cause a spiral back to where I started again.

There is a difference… Do you exercise to live, or do you live to exercise? Without our health, exercise means nothing.”

Am I saying that all exercise is bad? Of course not. Exercise is fantastic for you and I love it. And I still love boot camp classes. All I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be hardcore or make you sore to be a workout. You don’t have to push 100% all of the time. This is something I’m still learning myself. As I was writing this post, I got a text from my friend Tyler (of garage gym fame) that I think sums all of this up perfectly. He is recovering from a bout with mononucleosis and was able to do a whole workout today for the first time in months. A hardcore fitness fanatic like me, he has had to reevaluate. He writes, “My mindset has changed. I believed I was entitled to health because I tried to live healthy. And now I’m beginning to understand that these judgments of myself and expectations of how I want it to be are what lead to my misery, not the malady itself. Today all I am is grateful.”

What do you think of boot camp style classes – do you think Smith is right about the self-loathing thing? Anyone else have the mentality that if you’re not sweat soaked and completely spent then it wasn’t a “workout”? Anyone have a first boyfriend story to share?

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