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The 1 big lesson I learned from running 100 free fitness boot camps

For the past 2 years, I've run a free weekly boot camp every Thursday evening that I named Rory's Boot Camps (must've been a slow day in my creative naming department). Along the way, my boot camps have raised S$2,195 from voluntary donations for charities in Singapore or elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

On 21 April 2022, I reached a big milestone: 100 free boot camps. Frankly, I never imagined I'd maintain the interest of attendees or my motivation long enough to keep them going this long.

How it all started

Most of my regular boot campers will have heard the origin story of Rory's Boot Camp several times, but indulge me as I tell it one final time.

During my first year in Singapore, I joined the Spanish Armada, one of Singapore's dragon boat teams that compete in several national competitions each year. Once per week, the team do boot-camp style "land training" to improve cardiovascular fitness and strength. After a year with the team, I decided to leave but I wanted to continue the weekly workouts; sadly I was told I wouldn't be able to.

For around a month, I searched for a suitable replacement but sadly never found one that fit my schedule or (if I'm honest) felt like it was worth the money. So, rather than give up, I asked a couple of housemates if they'd like to work out with me in a local park (Fort Canning), which they eventually agreed to (after significant coercion and bribery).

1 workout became 2, 2 boot campers became 4, and so on and so on. Eventually, l had to create private Facebook events each week so people could sign up and receive all the necessary details. Fast forward a few weeks and I'd had a free logo designed by a boot camper (thanks, George), I'd invested in a fair amount of boot-camp equipment (thanks, Decathlon) and there were 10 to 32 people regularly attending my boot camps each week.

Why I started it

All too often, I hear capable people put obstacles between them and getting fitter, which includes not having the time, not having the money, not having the knowledge or not being able to.

While these reasons are valid some of the time, they are not most of the time. I'm a busy man who lives in Singapore, where (in my opinion) gym subscriptions are horrendously overpriced. Nevertheless, I've gotten into the best shape of my life over the past couple of years without spending any money (outside of weekly meal plans and the rare health screening) and doing 45-minute workouts in the convenience of my condo.

Daily, I feel the impact of my fitness on my mental and physical well-being and I want others to feel that positive impact too. This belief was the bedrock of my boot camps: provide a way for people to get fitter that removes all possible obstacles. I achieved this by making them free, always hosting them in a convenient and central location, and ensuring that workouts were (generally) accessible and scalable.

Since ending my boot camps, I've felt nostalgic for the people I met and the experiences I had along the way. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on what I gained from Rory's Boot Camp and there is 1 big lesson that resonates with me more than any other...

...and that's the power of community

It is all about the people. Those boot campers who chose to show up and support me each week regardless of time, weather or workout difficulty (and trust me, there were a few times I over-programmed boot camps). Regardless of peoples' backgrounds or fitness levels, we all knew that once per week we would come together to struggle through and complete a tough workout.

This bonding experience formed a strong sense of community. While that will have meant different things to different people, it taught me 2 things in particular: accountability and inclusivity.

My boot-camp community kept me accountable to do a tough, high-intensity workout once per week, something I may not have had the motivation to do otherwise. It also inadvertently nurtured my curiosity and creativity by keeping me accountable to program an engaging and good-quality workout for each week.

My boot-camp community ensured I maintained inclusivity at the core of what I do – this is a big one for me. I strive to lead by example and bring others along with me, which is illustrated in my decision to work out at the same time as my boot campers and sweat alongside them rather than bark orders at them from the sidelines. I learned so much from listening to feedback about how I could make boot camps better and more inclusive, such as making exercises scalable, explaining things more clearly, keeping things fun and engaging (I often weaved games into boot camps), and how to amend my communication style to get the best out of people.

I'll never forget a moment in one of my first few boot camps when a boot camper approached me at the end of a workout and told me off for shouting at her to "move faster" during a workout. She said that she had been working as hard as she could and that shouting at her wouldn't make her go any faster, it just made her feel embarrassed. This was an important lesson that taught me the difference between positive and negative motivation. While being shouted at in a military-style boot camp may work for some, it's the exception and not the rule – most people are best motivated by peers, by a shared effort, or by a trusted community.

Precious memories

At the risk of being over-sentimental, I want to call out a few of my precious boot camp memories. Some are long and some are short but each of them makes me smile.

  • On the anniversary of my tenth boot camp, my girlfriend at the time (thanks, Agathe) coordinated 15–20 people to meet before the boot camp and put on branded t-shirts she had specially ordered. I remember getting so annoyed that everyone was 10 minutes late and then getting so emotional when I saw so many of my friends approaching all wearing t-shirts that read "Rory's special boot camp. Established 2018. Born in Singapore". I wore that t-shirt to every single boot camp up to number 100 and still cherish it.

  • I enjoy creating themes for my boot camps to gamify workouts and take peoples' minds off the tough exercise they're doing. 3 workouts stand out from the rest: the now infamous Chinese New Year workout (where I created ludicrously difficult exercises for all 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac), the Christmas Tree of Doom workout (where I drew a Christmas tree to illustrate a pyramid workout), and each of the fitness tests (which were programmed every 10 boot camps and measured boot campers' performance over cardiovascular and strength tests).

  • Around Rory's Boot Camp 95, after a particularly wet boot camp, a boot camper (thanks, Korbinian) suggested that we celebrate our hard work with a beer at a local bar. Usually, I'd be in "machine mode" and say no as I'm obsessive about my calories, but we'd worked hard and I felt I deserved it. We spent a good hour talking about the tough workout, laughing and sharing drinks and it was a complete eye-opener for me – this was a wonderful way to cement the boot-camp community. We continued this tradition through to the final boot camp and I wish I'd started this tradition sooner.

  • Last but not least, Rory's Boot Camp 100 featured many familiar faces and was capped off with an emotional speech, freshly baked pastries (baked by a boot camper to mark the occasion) and a beautiful celebration video (skip to 4.06 to see so many of our post-boot-camp selfies) created by the Hartmanns (yes, the couple who did the guest review of Nutrition Kitchen for me).

Thanks to everyone who made my 100 boot camps so very special, regardless of whether you came to just 1 or most of them. Recent attendees come from all over the world and past attendees are now scattered all over the world. It's a wonderful community that I feel proud to have convened and trained (read: tortured) for 2 wonderful years.

If you'd like to keep up to date on the workouts I do and the meals I receive, you can follow me on Instagram.


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