Confrontations with a sweaty platoon of boot camp training recruits, bossed about by an instruction-hollering, whistle-blowing drill sergeant dressed in camouflage fatigues, have become so commonplace in our public green spaces nowadays that you’d be forgiven for thinking that your neighbourhood park has been turned into an army facility.
These are civilians who have declared war on their bodies and are willing to improve their health by pushing themselves to physical extremes. It’s been called the "militarisation of fitness" and its "no pain no gain" mantra is starting to infiltrate more mainstream exercise programmes. But how beneficial is it really?
1. Is it healthy?
Some exercise aficionados argue that while obsessively pushing yourself to the edge of your body’s capabilities can make you fit relatively quickly, it may also leave you with potentially severe long-term problems. It’s no surprise, after all, that many high-performance professional athletes spend an inordinate amount of time recovering from chronic injuries and preventing future flare-ups.
Any serious sportsperson understands the value of variations in exercise intensity, followed by sufficient rest and recuperation. There’s no need to drive yourself to complete collapse every time you work out.
“This fetishisation of constantly ‘going hard’ is problematic for a few reasons,” explains personal trainer Lauren Hannaford. “First of all, if you’re continually working at a high intensity without proper rest in between, you could really hurt yourself – especially if you’re not paying attention to your technique. I don’t think working out to complete exhaustion is the right attitude because you’ve got more chance of doing damage than of building muscle or improving fitness or whatever you’re trying to achieve”.
“Exercise needs to be done gradually, with proper supervision,” says Dr Ralph Rogers, a consultant in sports medicine. “When you overload the body, the result is injury – anything from shin splints to back problems – and in this kind of environment, people make things worse by trying to soldier on.”
Overtraining can also make you more vulnerable to permanent foot, ankle and knee damage, mess with your libido and change your menstrual cycle, as well as cause anxiety and depression.
So if your boot camp trainer doesn’t pay attention to your personal exercise technique and prides him or herself in inducing rhabdomyolysis (a condition in which muscle tissue is damaged and caused to break down with potentially serious health repercussions) in their clients, it’s time to move on.
2. Is it sustainable?
For some, boot camp style training and similarly extreme exercise methods can become an intoxicating obsession, but many others find the relentless pace and the constant acute exertion too much to keep up in the long run.
Read: 6 signs of gym addiction
For the real benefits of any physical exercise programme to become apparent, you need to be able to stick with it for an extended period of time. Most experts agree that consistency trumps intensity and a more relaxed and steady routine that keeps you excited without burning you out is probably more likely to deliver positive outcomes.
3. Mind over body?
Many fans of extreme exercising and boot camp training insist that it’s necessary to push through the so-called "pain barrier", suggesting that in the battle of mind over body we shouldn’t listen when the latter screams in agony.
Personal trainer Kirsty Welsh believes that the notion that we always have to be competitive to get ahead in personal fitness is really ego-based. “It can be a good thing, but if it’s coming from a feeling of ‘I’m not good enough as I am right now, I have to change something about myself’, that’s when it can be a bit destructive.”
One way that many people are motivating themselves to ever more intense workouts is through things like the #fitspo hashtag on social media platforms which comes with evocative pictures of impossibly toned, near-anorexic individuals in full exercise mode. Paired with quotes like ‘sore is the new sexy’ and the ubiquitous ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs, this trend can hit the wrong notes, especially with women, by setting yet another social standard to live up to that few are likely to achieve in reality.
According to clinical psychologist Olivia Patrick, “Even when women report that they find these images motivating (and many women say that they do), they often acknowledge that the comparisons with their own bodies have them feeling worse about themselves and their appearance.”
4. Where’s the fun?
Strenuous physical activity comes with a built-in pleasure mechanism that releases body chemicals which provide that well-known natural high which lifts your mood and inspires you in other aspects of life. High-intensity, fit-for-combat training regiments can diminish these important positive psychological aspects of exercising.
Those looking for inspiration from more playful ways of working out in a social environment are probably better served by group training and team sports that match their character and their own personal level of fitness. You’re more likely to stick to a regular workout programme and derive all of the long-term benefits it promises if you’re also having fun.
Are you boot camp material?
If you really get a kick out of extreme exercising and the style and passion they offer appeals to you, joining a boot camp training outfit may work perfectly well for you, especially if you pay careful attention to the skill level of the instructor and the amount of time they dedicate to assisting each individual member of their group.
It is important to remember, however, that it is absolutely not true that you have to suffer to benefit from physical exercise.
There are many alternative options with proven track records for you to choose from if you are searching for exciting ways to keep healthy and in shape. Look for trainers and groups that offer fun fitness activities from dancing and yoga to swimming, jogging and martial arts. And if you want something a little more innovative, why not try out canoe polo, dodge ball, tug of war or Frisbee golf?