The temperature hovers somewhere south of 30 degrees. A wicked wind blows across the Hudson as I unroll my mat on the damp stone in Riverside Park. Some might say that staying snuggled in my warm bed or sitting astride my Peloton bike are wiser options on this dreary January morning, but for me and the women shivering beside me, there’s no place we’d rather be than waiting for Lisa, our lovable lioness of a boot camp instructor, to set us in motion.
“Stairs!” Lisa roars, and the herd jogs off down the hill to the playground, loops around the promenade, then sprints back up the stairs.
“Lunges! Squat jumps! Mountain climbers!”
This group, comprised primarily of women in their 50s and 60s, has Covid to thank for making this particular brand of exercise a fixture in our lives. During the pandemic, our gyms closed. I thought I’d miss mine terribly as I had gone five to six days a week for the past 30 years.
Turns out the thing I missed most were the people I saw every day — on the spin bike, in the yoga studio and especially in Lisa’s boot camp class that met Tuesday and Thursday mornings. There were often upwards of 50 people, almost all women, who knew each other by name — or at least by face. I missed those faces.
Covid months went by. I did yoga at home. I got a Peloton bike. And then I heard Lisa was teaching outside: 45 minutes, ten bucks a pop, drop in as you please. I went.
The class was the perfect antidote to some of the worst aspects of Covid lockdown. Being outdoors decreased my chances of exposure to the virus and increased my consumption of fresh air. Boot camp provided structure to what seemed like one endless slog of moving from bed to desk to couch to bed. Perhaps most important, gathering together made me feel less alone in what had become a scary and isolating world.
Judging by the numbers of Patagonia-clad women who turned up on the plaza in front of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument, I wasn’t the only one jonesing for physical and emotional connection. “Folks were missing family and friends, but we quickly became our own community,” Lisa recounts. “At the height of Covid, we met on an almost daily basis. In addition to our workouts, we debated the best and worst Netflix offerings, discussed who was reading what, where to find disinfecting wipes and how long the line was at Trader Joe’s on Wednesdays versus Thursdays. We all just kept showing up.”
Nora, a veteran boot-camper in Lisa’s class, felt that the meetups were a lifeline. “Boot camp represented constancy in uncertain times,” Nora recalls. “Every morning, I looked forward to seeing those familiar faces, even with their masks on.”
That was nearly three years ago. Equinox has long since reopened. Pandemic restrictions and fears have eased. Yet, this ragtag team of over-50 warriors is still going strong three days a week, year-round — holding planks in the rain and banging out burpees in the snow. It needs to be an absolute deluge or dangerously frigid for Lisa to cancel. Some mornings there are a half dozen women. Other mornings, there might be 20. Some days we work hard, other days not so much. One woman who moved away regularly joins the class on her phone. We can’t see her but we hear the crows screaming in her yard so we know she’s there. She can’t see us, but she knows we’re there, too.
Science backs up what we boot-campers already know: Outdoor exercise is different. A recent study found that people experience greater feelings of revitalization, increases in energy, and decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression when doing physical activity in natural environments, compared to indoor environments. Fresh air helps alleviate insomnia; sunlight prompts the the body to produce vitamin D, which boosts immunity, bone health, brain health, brain cell activity, and more. Other studies have shown that outdoor physical activity lowers a person’s blood pressure and heart rate, which can make your workout feel less strenuous than similar exercise done indoors. There’s sometimes a pair of white-tailed hawks pensively perched in the tree above my mat, so there’s that too.
“Being outside makes the exercise more special and the after-effects last longer, even if the workout isn’t always that demanding,” says Joanne, my neighbor and fellow bootcamp regular. “The group is self-selecting in that there are no divas, no mirrors, no fancy workout clothes. It’s just a bunch of mostly older women who want to exercise, connect and leave the nonsense of the gym behind.”
The pull of the park is so strong that on Lisa’s off days, a group sometimes meets for a bootleg bootcamp, typically led by Joanne with a program she downloaded from the internet. We do 45 seconds of movement, offset by 15 seconds of rest, for about 35 minutes, followed by a 10-minute core workout courtesy of my Peloton app. At that point, we arrange our mats like the petals of a flower with my phone in the center. Sometimes passers-by take our picture, which makes us chuckle. We’re not sure if we look ridiculous or if those people wish they could be a petal too. Either reason is fine.
As fundamental as exercise and being outdoors are to me, I’ve come to realize that my devotion to boot camp is rooted in something more central to my well-being. Many of us are still relative strangers who come together a few times a week, then head off in different directions. Yet we talk candidly about wonky sex drives and sassy daughters-in-law and crushing cancer diagnoses. We share tips on finding caregivers for aging parents and share photos of newborn grandsons. With Lisa leading the charge, we hold fundraisers and coat drives and cookie swaps. Somehow, none of it feels old-fashioned. It just feels good in a way the gym never could.