As the bootcamp epidemic rages on (thanks Biggest Loser) I often wonder what it would be like if everyone was privy to the physiological facts of bootcamp style programs. I wonder what it would be like if one was able to do interviews with ex-biggest loser contestants and see how their health is 6 months, 12 months, 5 years after participating in these programs. I often wonder how did something that was designed to BREAK PEOPLE DOWN for the sake of military conformity got passed off as healthy. Regardless of all my wondering, facts remain facts. The fact is that bootcamp style fitness programs wreak havoc on your musculokeletal, nervous, and immune systems if they are not performed with adequate rest, nutrition, and general parasympathetic stimulation.
So what is it about this style of exercise that yields such dramatic weight loss initially, yet leads to weight gain and illness in the not so distant future? Stress hormones. Stress hormones (for our purpose we will focus on adrenaline and cortisol) are a marvel of nature that have allowed all life forms to survive the perils of life since the begining of time. These survival hormones stimulate the sympathetic branch of the nervous system shunting the blood out of the organs and into the periphery allowing us to fight or flight. Endurance work (20 minutes or more of continuous work) tends to keep the sympathetic system activated leading to muscle catabolism, thyroid inhibition, and a down regulation of the metabolism). Bootcamps which typically last 60-90 minutes per session, 3 times per week for 6-8 weeks are one of the greatest exploiters of our sensitive nervous system. The initial weight loss attributed to these programs initially comes from a temporary increase in the metabolic rate simply from moving from a more sedentary lifestyle to a more active lifestyle, or from an active lifestyle to a more active lifestyle. Either way you look at it the weight loss is a short term adaptation to an implied demand. The body has to work harder in order to meet the new requirements for energy production. This is why the appetite tends to increase with exercise. If the body is not given the opportunity to recover from this new stimulus (think rest and nutrition) the body must catabolize its own muscle tissue to make protein to rebuild the organs and to make glucose for the brain. This loss of muscle tissue leads to a decrease in metabolism. The primary hormone used to catabolize skeletal muscle is cortisol, cortisol is also a major inhibitor to the thyroid glad. As cortisol levels remain high the metabolism is further down regulated via thyroid suppression.
Another path to increasing stress hormones is inflammation (as cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone). Inflammation occurs not only from tissue breakdown, but also from musculoskeletal strain. Bootcamps tend not to take into account individual limitations, in fact it is impossible to properly train large groups of people until the participants have shown basic movement skills. These individual limitations tend to lead to strain in the aberrant tissues. For example, if you have shoulder instability doing hundreds of push-ups may not be such a good idea, if you have knee issues you may want to avoid the plyo jumps. The bottom line is that most bootcamp exercises are way to complex for an unstable body (and don’t think some planks at the end of class are going to solve your instability issues). The bottom line is that most people spend a majority of their day sitting in a car or at a computer, to throw these folks into a high intensity, high impact, high coordination program is nothing short of negligent and causes major problems to the musculoskeletal system as well as the nervous system. It takes time to develop real movement skills, it takes even longer to understand your bodies nutritional and rest requirements as they change from minute to minute. Don’t be fooled by the hype, long term exposure to bootcamp style workouts is the antithesis of health and fitness.
BS Exercise Science, CHEK 2, MTA