Basic Training

A small army of Americans is declaring war on fat by enlisting in weight-loss boot camp

March 02, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

The sun was just coming up as Rob Thomas went down.

He dropped to his hands and knees and started retching like a frat boy with a bellyful of beer. But Thomas wasn't drunk. He'd simply hit a speed bump on the road to better health, having completed his first 45-minute session at a fitness "boot camp."

This particular bypass on the boulevard of broken diets is paved by the Maryland Sergeant's Program, a company that favors whipping squishy, sedentary civilians into shape the old-fashioned way: with calisthenics and without mollycoddling.

Classes are held outdoors, not in sissified, temperature-controlled, high-tech gyms with fancy machines and juice bars. "No Music, No Spandex, No Mirrors, No Crybabies, No Refunds," as the Sergeant's Program promotional literature proclaims.

Thomas, a 42-year-old, 300-pound computer software executive with four kids and a desk job, reported to King Farm Park in Rockville at 6 a.m. on a Monday, dressed for business in his sweats and sneakers. It was still dark enough to steal cars. It was cold enough to frost windows and nasal passages. Yet Thomas and four fellow boot campers gathered on the tennis court and willingly obeyed every command issued by drill instructor Coleman Peterkin, a recently retired Marine with a naturally sunny disposition but who wouldn't think twice about making you do 20 push-ups for fraternizing with a bag of Fritos.

Peterkin proceeded to guide the group through set upon set of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, shoulder dips and leg stretches. They jogged pre-dawn laps around the peri- meter of the park, Peterkin leading call-and-response chants whenever the campers had the breath to spare, which wasn't often.

"You had a good home and you left ..."

"YOU HAD A GOOD HOME AND YOU LEFT..."

"Left, right, left, right..."

"LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT..."

Masochists, unite

We are a Wide-Load Nation. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than half of all American adults are overweight; more than 280,000 die each year as a result of obesity. There are a whole lotta love handles out there and we spend $33 billion annually trying to get rid of them -- with assorted diet products, weight-loss remedies and exercise regimes.

Military-inspired boot camps have emerged as a major weapon in the war on fat. In December the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association conducted a survey of the fitness activities available at more than 1,200 of its member clubs.

"Exactly half indicated they offer boot-camp training," says Bill Howland, the association's director of research. "That's up from a handful a few years ago."

Nowadays you can get hounded into condition from coast to coast. For example, there is Women's Fitness and Wellness Boot Camp in San Diego, Bulldog Boot Camp in Chicago and Corporate Fitness Boot Camp in Hollywood, Fla. Does your Inner Masochist yearn for something more extreme? Check out Team Delta Authentic Military Experiences in Philadelphia.

Team Delta's Web site says that the staff utilizes "fitness-building exercises like the Clapper, the Iron Mike, and the Cobra," but beyond that, they offer a Prisoner of War Interrogation Resistance Program in which "physical techniques (pain) are employed as required."

Patrick Avon, the 39-year-old "Sarge" behind the Sergeant's Program, was one of the first entrepreneurs to take the boot-camp concept public. A one-time Navy fitness instructor -- and, truth be told, a Navy dental technician -- Avon began in 1989 by tutoring two chubby friends at his Bethesda apartment. The Sergeant's Program has since muscled up to include more than 24 locations in Virginia, Maryland and Washington. Avon cleverly capitalizes on the stereotypical image of the rock-hard, no-nonsense drill sergeant while simultaneously lampooning it.

"There's less yelling than I thought there was going to be and less intimidation, which is a good thing," says Janet Allen, a 38-year-old sales executive from Olney. Allen did weight training and aerobics until she started a family and ran short of energy and free time about five years ago.

The Sarge has been known to hold an occasional class near the drive-in window of a McDonald's restaurant, where he'll shout out the fat content of a Big Mac, french fries and Egg McMuffin sandwich while his boot campers knock off a few rounds of pushups and stomach crunches. If a camper plays hooky for several days, he or she runs the risk of having the next class held in front of his or her house.

"I don't want to beat the ... out of people," explains Avon. Rather, he strives to create a band of exercise brothers (and sisters: 50 percent of his boot camp registrants are women) who will bond with a drill instructor determined to push whatever buttons need pushing day in, day out, until results are visible.

"It's basically sports without a ball," says Avon. "You've got the team, the camaraderie and the coach, only instead of scoring points, you get a thinner waistline."

All you used to be

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