Julie Kucinski hated getting out of bed in the morning. She couldn't look at herself in the mirror. Her pants barely buttoned.
"Sauvignon blanc and fried foods were my essential daily food groups," she said. "I couldn't stick to an eating or exercise program for more than 48 hours."
Then the Minneapolis resident did what the American Council on Exercise predicts more people will do this year: She joined a boot camp.
The increasing popularity of boot camps may reflect a cost-saving shift away from more expensive personal training. (A one-on-one session with a personal trainer can run up to $100 an hour, while most boot camp sessions range from $14 to $35.) And some fitness experts say the no-frills workouts have gotten a boost from extreme weight-loss shows such as "The Biggest Loser."
At Lifetime Fitness centers, which offer 12-week boot camps as well as targeted group fitness programs, participation increased 11 percent in the first quarter of 2010. The group approach may be part of the appeal.
"Boot camps push you 10 to 20 percent harder than you would on your own," said Phil Timmons, national program manager for Lifetime's T.E.A.M. fitness programs. "The group setting feeds that energy."
The goal of most boot camps is to help people increase cardiovascular fitness, build strength and burn fat. But unlike the drop-and-give-me-50 boot camps of yore, today's programs cater to a variety of fitness levels, goals and lifestyles.
Kucinski chose the Shed It boot camp at the Shed Fitness Studio in south Minneapolis. At six days a week for seven weeks, it's a rigorous program. In addition to morning classes of interval training, running, yoga, strength training and spinning, "campers" check in regularly with their trainer, attend group discussions and follow customized nutrition plans.
"You don't go home and figure the rest out on your own," says co-owner Katie Lewin. "No one ever feels like they're alone."
The group mentality has a maternal bent at Blooma in Edina, where moms bond while building pelvic-floor strength at the yoga studio's pre- and postnatal boot camps. The studio also offers weeklong Blooma Goes Outdoors boot camps to help moms transition to having kids home for the summer. After dropping off their little ones at the studio, where day care and breakfast are provided, campers head to a nearby park for hill runs, yoga and meditation.
Nine months after giving birth to her second child, Sara Afdahl decided that her workout routine wasn't cutting it.
"My core felt weak. My back would give out. I wanted to tone up the last bit of post-baby weight," she said.
Afdahl enrolled in CorePower's boot camp, two weeks of alternating strength- and circuit-training classes designed to jump-start metabolism and increase cardiovascular endurance. In addition to attending the camp six days a week, participants are strongly encouraged to get in a second daily workout. The one-two punch paid off: Afdahl lost 2 inches off her waist and toned her hips and thighs. "I pushed myself harder than I normally would. With two kids, my workouts need to count," she said. "It has to burn."
Nowhere does it burn more than at Sergeant Peterson's boot camp. In a bare-bones basement gym near Lake of the Isles, former Army man Tim Peterson and his company of trainers lead groups through a series of military-style drills: jumping jacks, push-ups, bear crawls, burpees. Although the workouts aren't for the faint of heart, they attract everyone from serious athletes to sorority girls seeking rapid results.
"I noticed a huge change within two weeks, and I only came twice a week," says camper Kevin Zimmerman. "They work you to failure. That's what your body needs."
For Julie Kucinski, boot camp was exactly what she needed.
"Not to get all Oprah, but Shed It didn't just change my body -- it changed my life. I quit a very secure job to start my own business. I changed my relationships. I feel like a different and better and happier and more successful person."
Minneapolis writer and lifestyle expert Elizabeth Dehn is the founder of BeautyBets.com.