Last year I lived in a village in Italy with one stoplight and no gym. But at an old train station, a local woman offered classes that roughly translated to "aerobics." I had an inkling that the workout may not be killer when several participants showed up wearing leg warmers and turtlenecks. Most classes involved some circling of arms and ankles followed by a little hopping. Sweating fell somewhere on the spectrum between optional and frowned upon. Most confusing of all, the instructor played Eddie Murphy's My Girl Likes to Party All the Time. Repeatedly. After the relaxing stretch, everyone changed without showering. Some reconvened in the piazza for a smoke while I usually retired to a friend's house for a macchiato and biscotti.
I was recalling those days with longing recently during a class at a boutique gym called Urbanfitt in Toronto. "If you feel like you're going to throw up," warned Urbanfitt founder Jane Clapp, "please don't." This joke was made between burpees, fire hydrants and modified sprinter lunges. I was physically unable to laugh.
For those who may be considering a get-fit New Year's resolution, be warned: Exercise these days resembles football practice. A new militarism dominates today's workout culture. In my neighbourhood, every telephone pole is plastered with flyers for workout "boot camps." A CrossFit gym also recently opened nearby, offering an exercise regimen used by some military and police special-operation units. Out of California, the licensed routine is now taught in over 1,700 gyms around the world. It sounds like a hellacious phys ed class, combining gymnastics, running and carrying heavy objects over long distances - all in the shortest amount of time possible (before the bell rings for algebra).
The principle at play in modern fitness is HIIT: high-intensity interval training. HIIT workouts feature short, intense bursts alternated with intervals of lower-speed recovery. Potential injuries aside, the health benefits may be significant: A small study from the University of Guelph published in the Journal of Physiology found that quick intervals of hard exercise may improve both cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capacity.
Recently, the American College of Sports Medicine released the results of a worldwide survey of fitness experts predicting trends for 2011. For the first time, boot camp - a HIIT type of workout - was in the top 10. The methodic and slow-build Pilates, by contrast, had slid out of the top 20.
But a decade ago, in the economically robust nineties, all the cool kids were into pilates and yoga. "In times of abundance, people get more hedonistic and gravitate toward activities that are pleasurable," Clapp says. "When times are tough, people want to tighten up and work harder. It's survival of the fittest economically and also in terms of fitness."
This seems counterintuitive: Shouldn't our bruised and broken psyches seek exercise that nurtures - less drill sergeants, more essential oils? But perhaps physical strength acts as armour against chaos, social and personal. One of Clapp's most successful group-training sessions is for breast-cancer survivors: "The quote I always come back to is: 'Don't ask for a light load; ask for a strong back.' "
The phrase "boot camp," incidentally, may have its origins in the Spanish-American War. During that conflict, sailors wore leggings called "boots," which became slang for an army or navy recruit. Today, boot camp is shorthand for "crash course" and quick fixes are an easy sell to the time-strapped masses. In Michigan, you can take a knitting boot camp; in Australia, there's a happiness boot camp.
Of course, this usage appropriates a real-world experience about which most of us know nothing. If I were a soldier who had endured weeks of basic training and then gone off to face roadside bombs in Afghanistan, I may find the idea of warring with one's ass at Booty Camp irksome.
Still, boot camps have an appealing narrative structure, as evidenced by weight-loss reality shows. Of course, to really understand what it takes to go from unhealthy to fit would mean following a contestant on The Biggest Loser for 20 or 30 years. But where's the three-act, one-hour redemption in that? Instead, a weeks-long weight loss boot camp, on TV or in real life, leads to a single climax: the big "reveal." Long term be damned.
But I understand the passion for immediate ferocity in exercise. While charming, the arm roll/macchiato workout just didn't cut it. As someone who spent high-school gym hiding in the bathroom, I relish the hint of jockdom in a HIIT workout. Squats and lunges are generally the purview of men. Part of the genius of CrossFit lingo is how it refers to participants as "athletes." Many women don't ever get that title, even if they're gym loyalists. The humiliations and triumphs adjacent to serious training - whether at CrossFit, tae bo or yoga - lead to a muscular sense of accomplishment, all the better for storming the year ahead.
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