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When exercise is competitive, winning isn't always the goal

Betsy Sachs had been coming to Arenal Fitness in Mount Washington for about a year, often watching people climb a rope to the ceiling. She never thought she could do it herself. She couldn't even in high school.

Her determination, however, just kept growing.

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"I have a bit of a competitive edge," said Sachs, 66. "Everyone cheered when I did it. Now it's my Facebook profile picture."

Arenal, a CrossFit gym, is among a growing collection of places that are fostering that competitive spirit among members so they work harder, get sweatier and squeeze more out of the often-limited time they have to suit up.

The idea of competition in sports and exercising isn't new; boxing gyms, martial arts studios and running groups have long been pushing head-to-head workouts. But the competitive-style gyms are proliferating and becoming more mainstream, trainers and observers say. Globally, there are now more than 11,000 CrossFit "boxes," which use high-intensity interval training and weights in group settings. Orangetheory gyms, which show who is working hardest on big screens, are now found in almost every state and several countries, including a new location in Hunt Valley.

They not only encourage participants to try to outperform each other — burn more calories, lift more weights or run faster — but motivate each other to regularly show up.

Trainers at area gyms say they strive for friendly and supportive challenges that foster as much team spirit as rivalry. People cheer even when they've been beaten. If there is "trash talk," it's usually between friends. And trainers are there to make sure no one's bodies — or egos — go home too bruised.

"We want everyone to do their best," said Donna Pierce, one of Arenal's owners and a trainer. "We push you along and see when you can take it up a notch."

Certainly, competition doesn't work for everyone, and people will only exercise regularly if they find something they enjoy doing, said Yuri Feito, an assistant professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University in Georgia who has studied CrossFit.

But Feito said the competitive type of gyms, and even obstacle course-style events such as Tough Mudder, have proliferated in recent years because enough people thrive in the environment. Businesses are taking advantage. He said "natural selection" will weed out gyms that don't foster a healthy, positive kind of competition because people who often go home demeaned or injured are not likely to come back.

Feito said a 600-person survey of CrossFitters he conducted showed that men, especially, found the competition motivating. Women were more motivated by the benefits to their bodies. Injuries, he found, were not significantly higher in CrossFit than in other competitive types of exercise, countering limited earlier studies suggesting that the intensity and weights made it particularly dangerous. The risk is there, he said, and if CrossFit and other competitive-style workouts continue to remain popular, more study is needed.

Exercise fads do come and go, he said, noting the aerobic craze of the 1980s. The attraction of competition, however, is continuous improvement rather than a static, or repetitive, exercise.

"People are looking for ways to remain active or get active, and the days of leotards and aerobic exercises are in the past," he said. "People want other ways to keep them interested. Studies show that people who exercise in these kinds of groups are more likely to stick with it. The competition keeps people coming back."

Members at Arenal say they strive to be a supportive community, one where people of all ages and abilities can compete and feel accomplishment. Those most driven by competition can participate in cross-gym tournaments. But many just want to beat their own personal records and enjoy the camaraderie that comes with helping one another reach their goals.

Susan Closic said she gets text messages when she doesn't show up for class, even though the 70-year-old recently had heart surgery.

She's probably not going to out-lift many others in the gym but said on a recent day she felt "a bit of a push" watching 42-year-old Josh Scheinker raise 135 pounds above his head. The class trainer, Lauren Bunney, who is also an Arenal co-owner and Closic's daughter, thought adding two pound plates on each side of her bar would be OK.

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Scheinker put his own weights down to help Closic. Then he focused on Ken Pierce, Arenal owner Donna's husband and another trainer.

"We compete," he said. "He throws jabs at me, but it's all fun."

Some observes say it's the responsibility of trainers to monitor for bad behavior. Ryan Hoover is a trainer and author in North Carolina who founded Fit to Fight centers, which focus on martial arts, and has written about the potential perils competitive exercise. He said gyms centered on competition have become readily available in every city and have become "in vogue."

Trainers need to set the tone, ensuring that the language people use isn't hurtful or dangerously pushy. They also need to understand the limitations of people in the group, particularly older and younger participants or those who have recently been sick or injured, Hoover said.

"I wholeheartedly believe in group fitness in terms of motivating and driving individuals to do more and do better," he said. "The other edge of it, you run the risk of people doing things they wouldn't normally do and maybe aren't quite ready for. Adults can be susceptible to peer pressure, too, and we have to watch to make sure a hyper-competitive environment doesn't develop."

At Orangetheory in Hunt Valley, trainers try to get to know members so they can tell when they are having an off day and either need more encouragement or need to ease up, said Sonrisa Medina, the gym owner and a trainer. She said many days people do want more of a push.

"People always perform better when they're being watched," she said, referring to the screens that show if someone is in the "orange zone," or achieving a personalized target heart rate. Medina said that puts everyone on an even playing field, from elite athletes to beginners.

"Competition creates a measurable goal that drives a lot of people," she said. "If you just jump on the treadmill for 30 minutes, where [is] the goal in that? But if you're trying to catch up to the person in front of you or not let the person behind you catch up, you create the goal."

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