'Ninja Warrior'-inspired gyms usher obstacle racing into Howard County

To reach the angled monkey bars at NinjaBe, an indoor obstacle-racing center in Columbia, 8-year-old Andrew Adams climbs atop a cushioned pad. Then he jumps.

A week ago, the Columbia third-grader couldn’t make it across the 10 U-shaped bars without dropping to the ground. But today is different. As he leaps off the pad, Andrew sails across the bars like a pro, swinging his body back and forth until he reaches the end. Within seconds, he’s off to the next obstacle.

“This is like his playground,” says his mother, Krystal Saunders. “It’s a place that can challenge him and build his confidence.”

Inspired by the NBC television series “American Ninja Warrior,” in which contestants tackle challenging obstacles, Andrew is one of the many Howard County kids who are climbing, jumping and swinging at NinjaBe and the Endurance Factory in Savage. Adults, too, are turning to the facilities, both of which entered the fitness scene in late 2017.

“American Ninja Warrior” has changed people’s perceptions of fitness, says Rian McLean, an Elkridge resident, staff member at NinjaBe and competitor on the show’s most recent season.

“People see a lot of us are having fun,” McLean says. “Sure, there are times when we fall, but the fact is a lot of us get up with smiles on our faces.”

Owners of NinjaBe and the Endurance Factory say Howard County is a prime location for obstacle-style fitness centers.

Dawn Alexander, an Ellicott City resident and chief brand officer for NinjaBe, says she, April Giles of Ellicott City and several other local parents came up with the idea while discussing the importance of exercise – and the ability to overcome both physical and emotional obstacles in life. The more they shared the idea with other families and friends, the more they knew it was the right time and place to pursue NinjaBe, she says.

“It’s important for kids to have exposure to this kind of fitness because it’s functional,” Alexander says.

The 25,000-square-foot center is packed with obstacles, an ultimate dodge ball court, climbing walls and even mechanical bulls. It offers 60-, 90- or 120-minute sessions, monthly memberships, “tiny ninja” classes for children as young as 3, and obstacle racing classes for children 6 and up, teens and adults.

Ken Peluso, owner of the Endurance Factory, says he opened his gym after years of trying to find local spots to train clients for upcoming obstacle races. The Columbia resident has competed across North America in Spartan races — obstacle courses that vary in distance and difficulty.

“I started taking my clients to playgrounds,” he says. “But all of the monkey bars are kid heights.”

So he began building his own obstacles, including 9-to-12-foot-high monkey bars and “Stairway to Skull Valley,” an obstacle that incorporates gym rings, skull-shaped rock-climbing holds and two sets of open, elevated wooden steps.

“It’s nice to be able to have all that equipment in one space,” says Miranda Smith, a Hanover resident, Spartan racer and Endurance Factory member. The gym offers classes, monthly memberships and drop-in rates for ages 16 and up.

Heather Crowe, an adjunct instructor of kinesiology at Towson University and a physical educator at Riderwood Elementary School in Baltimore County, says there are several reasons why obstacle-style television shows and exercise have taken off in recent years. The first: It’s in our nature.

“If you think about it from a developmental perspective, that’s really how children start exploring their environment,” she says. “It is the non-patterned, sometimes up, sometimes down, pulling up, kind of making-your-own way to whatever your goal is. I think that’s just a natural form of movement that we as humans seek out.”

When children play on playgrounds, they seek activities like climbing on the jungle gym and swinging from the monkey bars, Crowe says. But as they age, they tend to get more involved in organized sports.

“It gets more and more restrictive as you get older,” she says. “You need to have more talent and a higher skill level in order to make the next team. … There’s a whole lot less opportunity. And within that, it’s so much more restrictive in what kinds of movement are expected and rewarded.”

In obstacle courses, most of the challenges are easily adaptable, meaning people of all ages and abilities can find success, says McLean, the NinjaBe staffer and “Ninja Warrior” competitor.

“There’s not just one way to do something,” he says. “And you don’t have to be a Ninja Warrior to do it.”

Obstacle-style fitness also bonds families together, says Robert Gramlich, a Columbia resident and part of the NinjaBe ownership team. Several parents have joined the center after seeing their children on the equipment, he says.

NinjaBe also hosts individual and team obstacle racing, including an Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association qualifier on Jan. 14 and 15.

“Our hope is that [obstacle racing] will be a standalone sport at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028,” Alexander says. “We would love to see someone from here compete.”

The Olympics and a spot on “American Ninja Warrior” could be in Andrew’s future. But for now, he just wants to master his next obstacle: the zip line.

“If your hand is slippery, you’ll fall,” he says.

The minimum age for the show is 21, so he’ll have plenty of time to practice.

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