May 19th, 2008
04:35 PM ET

Surviving fitness boot camp

By Amy Burkholder
CNN Medical producer

I'm sprinting – straining – at maximum capacity, desperate to keep my battalion of determined men and women in sight – knowing one missed step could leave me stranded – and vulnerable to the enemy, in this case are the much faster runners – on a bench in Central Park.    

I'm not on a maneuver, I'm fighting for survival at  Aussie Boot Camp, a program promising to target my "problem areas" through lamp post sprints, lunges, stairs, tricep dips and push-ups – and deliver a better body – in time for the Hamptons.

"At Aussie Boot Camp, you'll get physical fitness results, improve your breathing, and your lifestyle, " promises Luke Milton, the 6 foot 2, blond, professional rugby player and personal trainer who conducts 'Aussie Boot Camp' in New York's Central Park.  (Luke has memorized everyones' names and intuits how much encouragement they need in moments – and I secretly begin believing, if you can't put out for Luke, who can motivate you?) 

"Boot camp" is a marketing catchall – there are bikini boot camps, bridal boot camps – and exercise experts point to these fitness, military-style boot camps as one of the fastest growing fitness trends in the country.  Many run an hour a day, $20 bucks or much more an hour – four or five days a week for six weeks – the duration of real military boot camp. But while the U.S.  Army promises "no bull, no bias, no pressure," and to "transform you physically, mentally and emotionally" – many fitness boot camps promise a 5 percent reduction in body fat, a 1o to 15 pound weight loss, a 25 percent improvement in strength – oh, and that beach body. 

Can fitness boot camp really do all that – and transform you in a matter of weeks? Yes, says Dr. William Roberts, former president of the American College of Sports Medicine – but it's going to hurt a little.  "You can get in pretty good shape in four to six weeks," says Roberts, who holds out the military as an example -it expects its recruits to be whipped into shape in a very short amount of time. With the consistent, sustained exercise the boot camp promises, you can also expect to lose weight – you may not go from 190 to 165, but a 5- to 10-pound weight loss may be realistic. 

One key, says Dr. Roberts, is to get checked out and train before you start boot camp. Even the military asks new recruits to prepare physically before they arrive.  Going from zero to a boot camp workout can increase your risk not only for serious cardiac events and muscle strain, but it may also leave you sore and discouraged for the next session – and more likely to quit.

Dr. Roberts said think of enlisting in a fitness boot camp as you would preparing for a marathon – you need a beating heart, a tested heart, a trained heart – and – a lot of heart.   Aussie Milton echoes that heart business – he says as important as the lamppost  sprints is the sense of belonging. "I don't want to be an army drill sergeant, but I want people get in shape and feel like a part of a team. " Milton continues, "This feeling of being a part of a team builds consistency in your lifestyle, makes you more likely to show up – and to work harder for that team. "

But what about taking one for the team – in the form of burning thighs and arms so exhausted you can barely raise them? As a boot camp participant – I guarantee you will be "feeling the burn," but exercise experts disagree whether that really does a body any good. High-intensity training may help the body create proteins that help the body use lactic acid to create energy, but an hour of sustained high-intensity exercise doesn't do as much good as interval training – a workout with exercise highs,  and rest periods that can  improve cardiovascular health, and burn fat.

What do you think of fitness boot camps – have you tried one? Did you get a bikini body, or burn out?  

We'd love to hear from you.

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Filed under: Exercise • Fitness • Weight loss

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.