Outdoor fitness classes have really taken off in the last few years – Neil Hudson braved the pre-dawn world to find out what it was all about
It’s 6.30am, I’m standing in a park on the outskirts of Morley – it is cold, damp and very dark. Why would anyone want to be outside in this unless they absolutely had to?
Who better to ask than some of the people who choose to crank themselves out of bed on cold winter mornings for pre-dawn exercise classes.
I am taking part in Boost Camp, which runs three-times a week at Dartmouth Park, Morley – the session I join begins at 6.30am.
It is just one of many such outdoor fitness classes which have taken off in recent years.
Course leader Rebecca Roach, a former website designer, has an array of equipment with her, from rubber mats and boxing gloves to a tug-o-war rope and a halogen light so we can see where we’re going, because when I arrive at the park, it’s still pitch black.
Just a shade after 6.30am, there are nine of us assembled in the bandstand and as Rebecca leads us through a brisk warm-up, it occurs to me how we might look to passers-by, which at this time consist of numerous togged-up dog walkers.
Formed in a circle, each of us facing inwards, we stand like members of some strange religious cult, gently moving our heads up and down and side to side.
On reflection, perhaps we are members of a cult and one which draws followers from all walks of life and all age groups.
These days, outdoor exercise classes are big business.
Anyone who has been to a park in Leeds in the last few years cannot fail to have noticed the bib-wearing faithful members of this new religion performing their allotted tasks with diligence.
For some of them, the struggle is writ large on their faces.
Their mantra: ‘exercise first thing and the rest of the day is yours’ seems to have struck a chord.
It is the perfect antidote to the monotony of your average nine-to-five and if you can be bothered to brave the dark, cold pre-dawn world, it won’t eat into your precious free time after work.
I was told to dress in layers but 10 minutes in, I’d ditched the woolly hat and was wishing I’d just worn shorts instead of jogging pants.
The class I attended consisted of a mixture of running, jumping, squatting, walking like a duck, lifting heavy ropes and tubes and doing push ups on a mat.
Personal trainer Rebecca Roach formed Boost five years ago after reaching a crisis point in her former job. She said: “I used to work in IT and had my own internet business, I was spending 70 hours a week on the computer, I developed an upper limb disorder, which involved muscular, joint and nerve problems with my shoulders and upper back and I got told that if I didn’t change, I could lose the use of my arms... that was five years ago.
“At that time my [late] mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and I started training and pilates as a way of relaxing. I thought, if it worked for me, maybe it will work for other people.
“I’m always amazed people are enthused to come out but once they’re here they forget about the cold and the dark. “There’s something for everyone and in five years of doing this, I don’t think I’ve done the same class twice.
“Boost Camp is all about getting fit whilst in the fresh air rather than sitting down, slouched on a resistance machine that trains just one muscle group at a time.
“We believe in making more efficient use of your time and work many areas at once whilst challenging the body in a range of functional movements. Each session is different, so expect the unexpected.
“With the long nights and dark mornings, we need help with the motivation of exercise, especially at the thought of exercising outside.
“Most people spend a shocking 90 per cent of their time indoors at this time of year. We barely get to see or enjoy the great outdoors and fill our lungs with fresh air.
“However, it is harder to find those excuses when you become a regular participant in motivating outdoor fitness sessions such as those run by Boost Camp.”
Marcus Dyson, 46, a web developer from Dewsbury, who has been doing the classes since January, said: “I was going to the gym but I found it hard to motivate myself, I used to cheat and take short-cuts but here, having someone looking over you, you are more inclined to do more.
“In January, there were people coming out when it was minus eight. I have lost two stone since January – for me, it has been transformative.”
Boost is just one of a number of outdoor exercise classes – one of the most popular is British Military Fitness.
Founded in 1999, it came to Leeds in June 2008 and is the biggest outdoor fitness company in the UK with over 20,000 venues.
Ex-Royal Marine Mark Donaldson is BMF’s Leeds area manager.
“In Leeds in the summer we can sometimes get up to 150 people for one class – that rivals the classes they run in London.
“People love being outside – exercising outdoors is considered by some to be effective in combating seasonal affective disorder. There’s a competitive aspect to it but the main thing we do is to make exercise fun. It is absolutely not a boot camp, our classes are all about creating a motivating environment and maximising team spirit in the great outdoors.”
Personal trainer Richard Hill, 36, runs Iveridge Health Club, Oulton, Leeds and said ‘green’ exercise was better for the body and the mind.
“People like it because it gets you outdoors and it stimulates you, there’s a sense of well-being which we get from that which you don’t get when you are stuck in a warehouse full of gym equipment.
“If we are honest, most of us do not enjoy certain types of exercise – what outdoor classes do is try to address the longevity of exercise.”
Mr Hill said he was running a special week-long pre-Christmas boot camp, beginning on Saturday November 26 at 8am and running every day for a week.
He said: “It’s a week-long course designed to get you in shape for Christmas. Over the course of the week, you will lose about 8.5lbs and about three inches from your waist – we’ve done this with about a hundred people so far, so we know it works.”