Skip to main content

Marlene Habib runs Be-Fit Boot Camp in Toronto.

Marlene Habib is a certified trainer who founded Be-Fit Boot Camp in Toronto in 1996.

There's nothing like getting back to basics to get in shape, as my years of training men and women of all ages and fitness backgrounds in outdoor boot camp-style classes in Toronto have proved.

But the older you get, the more careful you should be before becoming part of the boot camp boom. Men and women 40 and older have a greater chance of having health and medical challenges, and muscle and joint problems, so should tread carefully before enlisting in this military-inspired group training.

For my classes, I always ask potential "recruits" for their medical and fitness backgrounds - if they have high blood pressure, heart issues or are on certain medications. I also ask them to get clearance to exercise from their doctors. But anyone looking to join a boot camp should also tell their trainer if they have any concerns that may hinder their participation.

Quality classes will offer progressive difficulty of each exercise for novice to advanced participants, so they're continually challenged and their fitness improves. The workouts also need to be safe, empowering and educational, and led by certified instructors, preferably those familiar with the changing needs of people as they age.

While boot camps evoke images of a drill sergeant barking out commands and pushing recruits to tears, most classes are led by trainers who encourage participants to work at their own pace.

The average person isn't looking for the no-pain, no-gain approach to exercise, notes Tommy Europe, a former football player based in Vancouver and the star trainer on Slice channel's The Last 10 Pounds Bootcamp and Bulging Brides TV shows. Although Mr. Europe has an in-your-face style and pushes his TV programs' participants to the brink, his SHRED Bootcamp classes, held in various Canadian cities, are for people of all fitness levels.

"People like them [boot camps]because everybody is cheering each other on, and everyone works at their own levels - it's all about perfect form and perfect reps rather than trying to speed through the workout and getting hurt," he says, adding: "People familiar with me are shocked when I crack jokes all day instead of yelling at them ... everyone is there to get in shape and get a great workout, and it should be fun along the way."

Everyone's story about why he or she joined a boot camp is different.

Five years ago, for instance, Leighanne Dufour joined my twice-weekly, hour-long classes at Eglinton Park in mid-Toronto at age 40 because she found that, as she got older, it was getting more difficult to maintain her weight and fitness level, and she was developing knee problems.

"I had to do something because I was getting lazy and turning into a couch potato," says the insurance company worker, adding: "I was looking for something to do outside of a gym."

Today, Ms. Dufour says, she is not only stronger, more toned and defined than she has ever been, but she has found that the emotional boost of working out with others have made her more motivated and outgoing.

As with each student, I encourage her to go with how her body feels performing each exercise and tell me if anything is making her uncomfortable or giving her pain, and give her variations to certain moves that won't tax her knees. For instance, instead of doing deep lunges, she only partially lowers her body during each lunge.

While each boot camp's classes vary, they commonly involve calisthenics and using your own body weight (pushups, lunges and squats are staples) and elements of the outdoors (such as stairs and hills). I use park benches and picnic tables, for exercises such as step-ups (a lower-body strengthener) and dips (to work the back of the arms, or triceps), as well as exercise bands for upper-body resistance training. Other trainers may incorporate equipment such as skipping ropes and medicine balls, or pylons and other items for obstacle courses.

Boot camp workouts should always start with a warm-up - I get people walking for several minutes - to get muscles pliable and help prevent injury. After leading them through stretches, I put them through stair and hill climbing, and a series of other high- and low-intensity exercises that work every muscle group and challenge their stamina and strength. While I mix up the routine nearly every class, I always include an end-of-class cool-down - a series of stretches that help lessen the risk of next-day soreness.

Mr. Europe uses both low- and high-impact moves to ensure safety - and emphasizes proper form - because "once hurt, the chances of getting people back into exercise are pretty low."

Carrie Burrows, founder of Georgetown Fitness Boot Camp, which also has Ontario locations in Acton, Milton and Oakville, says more than half of her registrants are over 40 and looking for a program that is flexible, effective and affordable.

"People 40-plus are taking control of their health after investing in their kids and work," notes Ms. Burrows. "They turn around and suddenly realize they're out of shape, and want to reclaim their health.

"But before anyone joins, I go through the program with them, explain what we do, the style of training and what happens, so they're not blind-sided and unsure of what do."

Proper nutrition also plays an increasingly important role in keeping fit as people age, as Mr. Europe and Ms. Burrows emphasize with their participants.

"It's a total lifestyle change - and it doesn't happen overnight," says Mr. Europe, author of the book The 10-Pound Shred: From Flab to Fit in 4 Weeks. "But it's something you have to be diligent at - and remember, you're really investing in yourself if joining a boot camp or hiring a trainer."

Special to The Globe and Mail


Forty and over, and looking to join an exercise boot camp?

Here are some questions to ask:

1.What are the trainer's credentials, i.e., has he or she been certified by a recognized fitness body, and have experience in training older adults?

2.Does the instructor give exercise alternatives or modifications to specific moves, based on a person's fitness level and any physical or other restrictions?

3.What is the size of the class? The larger it is - for example, more than a dozen participants - the less likely a trainer can keep on top of each exerciser. Larger boot camp classes may have two instructors.

4.Do the workouts target each aspect of fitness: upper- and lower-body strength, heart-lung (cardio) health, midsection (core) strength and flexibility?

5.Can the workouts be easily duplicated outside class, in case you miss a class or want to work out on your own?

6.Will classes still be held if there's rain or other bad weather? Will they be made up if they're cancelled?