Are bootcamp fitness classes dangerous for your health?

I usually try to stay pretty neutral with my opinions of the fitness industry, other methods, programs and training styles. The truth is there is no one system; absolutely no one system works best. Weight training, cardio, aerobics, circuit training, yoga, pilates, nothing is complete and anyone who is absolute in their opinion of such is dogmatic and harmful to the industry. Having said that, there’s a trend that has exploded in the last 10 years, a trend that I simply cannot give any support or credence to whatsoever. High Intensity Group Training or bootcamps. They are destroying a generation of active people who think they’re doing the right thing. The worrying thing is, it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

I often have conversations with people who go to these classes where I come across as crazy. My own fault I guess. Mark Twain says it perfectly: ‘Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.’

This is what those conversations look like.

ME: Stop! Just stop. Really, this has to end.

Bootcamp Goer:  What has to end, Eoghan?

Me: What you’re doing. It has to end. It really does. It makes me sad, so sad. It hurts me, it personally hurts me deeply, like when you tell me I have red hair. It chips away at my soul and I’m afraid it will be the death of my emotional self!

Bootcamp Goer: Ooooookay, what in the flying purple people are you talking about? What am I doing?

Me: Your workouts, your idea of fitness, your ‘training.’ Whatever you call it, Crossfit, Barry’s Bootcamp, Rumble or whatever other bullshit high intensity group training classes you are doing. (P.S.: Not all Crossfit's are bad, some are unbelievably well-designed gyms with intelligently- programed and implemented training sessions. Yes, all Barry’s Bootcamps, Rumbles, P90x’s, etc, are bad.)  

Get mad, throw a hissy fit. Do what you want, I’ve heard all the arguments and they’re all scientifically and factually wrong. Don’t believe me? Look around your class, why is the only beautifully sculpted person in the room the instructor? Simple. They are the only person in the room who does not actually do that type of workout.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to raise my voice. It’s not your fault. We are bombarded with this message that to have a good workout we must be left in a pool of sweat. Actual motivational slogans I have seen plastered over gym marketing and athletic brands include: “Unless you puke, die or faint, keep going,” “Sweat is fat crying,” “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” What else are you to think? If you aren't bringing yourself to that level of fatigue, you’re just being lazy.

Bootcamp Goer: Well what’s wrong with that, shouldn’t I work hard?

Me: Good question and yes you should work hard, but difficulty is not graded by your level of exhaustion. Intensity can be manipulated by many factors. Speed, volume, resistance and quality. The latter being the most important for the majority of people taking group fitness classes. If you can’t control the quality in which you do an exercise then you have no right whatsoever attempting to increase intensity with speed, volume or resistance. That’s the first problem. You are simply being asked to do too much without the adequate foundation. This will eventually lead to an injury which will set you even further back.

The next problem is a lot more sinister and really unknown. The Central Nervous System (CNS) is respected as the driver of pretty much everything in your body. Your movement, your hormones, your metabolism, it is the main frame. However, it is very hard to study and very hard to accurately monitor. We don’t really know when our CNS needs a break. Unless we are exceptionally in tune with our bodies we are not going to feel the early symptoms of fatigue and breaking down. Muscle soreness, fatigue, loss of concentration, depression, insatiable thirst. They can all be signs that you are simply too stressed. We usually ignore these until our body finally gives up and then — bang! — you're in bed sick for the week. Again setting your fitness goals back.

The workouts that are done in these classes push the envelopes of exhaustion. They are designed not from the intelligent perspective of making you better, but to make you work as hard as physically possible. This puts a tremendous demand on your CNS. Couple that with the highly stressful lives us New Yorkers live just by virtue of our residence in this city and you create someone who is almost stuck in the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode, stress). Let's not even talk about the lack of sleep you are getting and that coffee you’re addicted to.

So the class that the stressed person goes to to relieve their stress makes them more stressed. They don’t feel this of course; endorphins are rushing through their bodies. The natural high masking the real fatigue that the body is experiencing. To counter this, the body starts releasing cortisol. This hormone is the anti-stress hormone, it is vitally important but like anything in excess, it is damaging. If we are in a constant sympathetic state we are constantly producing cortisol. Too much of this hormone has been linked to increased blood sugar, suppressed immune system, decreases in bone formation, insomnia and fatigue to name just a few.

So without being overly dramatic, I think these classes are actually dangerous to the long term health of their members and while yes you should work hard (at times) what you are doing is not working hard, it is beating you into the ground.

Bootcamp Goer: Wow, you’re scaring me. How did it get like this?

Me: Well, ironically High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has been the subject of a lot of scientific research. It is well-accepted as having tremendous benefits including fat loss, cardio endurance, bone density, increased energy levels and better sleep. It has also been found to get these benefits in a much shorter period than traditional exercise protocols. I agree with all of them. However, what you see in these classes is not HIIT.

HIIT involves working at a maximum intensity — remember intensity is to be controlled by speed, volume, resistance and quality, for a very short period. Somewhere between 10 and 60 seconds. This is to be matched with either an active or passive recovery. One of the most popular HIIT protocols was done by a Dr. Tabata, this involves working at a maximum effort for just 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated for 8 rounds. That is only 4 minutes of work with 80 seconds of that being rest. A common approach we use in our Inwood group training classes is a circuit with 40 seconds of sub maximum effort followed by 20 seconds of rest. Repeated for 5 or 6 exercises and 2 or 4 rounds. This is usually around 20 minutes of hard work. It is preceded by 20 minutes of preparatory work where we can work on movement quality, mobility and stability. We finish with 10 minutes of restoration and a CNS cool down. That is close to an hour of quality work with only 20 - 30 minutes working at near maximum effort. My personal workouts will push the envelope sometimes too, but I have built a base and know when my body is telling me to stop. In bootcamp classes, you are subjected to 45 – 60 minutes of highly intense work. The instructors focus more on the entertainment of their class goers than the actual quality of movement of the individual.

These popular bootcamps have stolen this scientific research to hide behind. They pack out classes to a level where diligent instruction is impossible, they blare music to distract people from themselves and any possible warning signs their body is giving them. They claim what they provide is HIIT. They supply adrenal fatigue and exhaustion and call it working out. It’s easy to do, anyone can make you exhausted, just throw endless exercises at you until you say no more. It is not training — it’s a downright scam.

Bootcamp Goer: Shit, OK. I get it.

Me: It’s scary.

Bootcamp Goer: ...are you crying?

Me: I’m sorry, I get so emotional about this, but this is my passion. I believe in what I’m doing more than anything I have ever believed in and it is very hard to have to fight what is happening in the mainstream fitness world. I want to make people better and happier and I am fighting corporate scam artists that want nothing but your money. It makes me sad.

And no, I’m not crying! A bug flew into my eye…