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Fitness boot camp — an inside view

ATLANTA — It's dark. It's cold. But instead of snoozing under my comforter, I'm lying in the wet leaves in my neighborhood park struggling to do sit-ups.

Yes, sit-ups. Not those wimpy little crunches where you barely budge off the ground. But good, old-fashioned sit-ups like the ones you did in junior high gym class.

Welcome to boot camp.

Every weekday morning for a month I have agreed to arrive here by 5:45 a.m. so that I can be shepherded through a workout that leaves me gasping for breath and, more often than not, covered in mud and twigs.

The idea is to jump start my fitness routine, which in recent months has consisted primarily of ambling walks for my geriatric dog and playing hide-and-seek with my toddler.

Not exactly a regimen heavy on the cardio.

A former runner, I had been trying to ignore the fact that I seemed to be breathing a little heavy when I climbed the stairs at work. But there was no avoiding the fact that when I tried to pull on a beloved pair of pants one day they simply wouldn't button.

In a bit of serendipity a flier announcing the start of "Operation Boot Camp" was on my door a few days later.

Or maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. Boot camps are everywhere these days.

They come in many varieties, some a drill sergeant wouldn't recognize: There are baby boot camps, for new moms pushing strollers as well as pregnant moms-to-be. Boot camps on the beach combine a killer workout with a vacation and spa cuisine. Yoga boot camps are for those looking to perfect their downward dog. And women looking to tap into their feminine energy to improve their health from the inside out can check out the "Goddess Warrior" boot camp.

Unlike a regular exercise routine that's designed to be followed for the long haul, a boot camp is a short burst focused on yielding a specific result or providing a needed shot in the arm.

Cedric Bryant, chief science officer with the American Council on Exercise, says boot camps offer busy folks with short attention spans — and an aversion to leaving bed before the sun comes up — a time-efficient way to see results fast.

The fact that I shelled out $350 for this also gives me a reason not to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock.

So here I am with an acorn wedged painfully in my shoulder blade as our instructor calls out the count far faster than I am able to lurch upward in what I imagine is the most awkward sit-up ever.

Thankfully we complete the set but immediately we are up and running, then performing lunges and then running again and then hopping like a crazed rabbit in the pre-dawn chill. One thing I quickly learn about boot camp is that you never rest. Even as you are listening to the instructors explain the next tortuous task on the morning's agenda you are supposed to be doing squats, jumping jacks or push-ups. I am constantly peeling off layers of clothes and it's December.

The instructors don't shout or berate us like the old military drill sergeant models, but they do "encourage." The class is small so if you slack off they notice and make everyone stop until you pull yourself together and keep going.

Workouts vary from day to day and have names like Altitude Adjustment (lots of sprints involving hills) and House of Pain (I don't think there was a part of me that wasn't sore after that one).

Some days my legs feel like they are being weighed down by cement blocks. Others it hurts to raise my arms in the shower to wash my hair.

Some camps aim to make more than your body lighter.

Patrick Lacho says his Los Angeles-based yoga boot camp focuses on intense Kundalini yoga but also meditation.

"They are more radiant and more calm and better able to the handle the stresses in their life," Lacho says.

The weeklong "Goddess Warrior" boot camp held at locations around the nation begins each day with a silent hike and includes yoga and strength training, explains founder Sierra Bender. But the women also dance, sing and choose their own individual goddess.

And Bender would never dream of adopting the "drop and give me 20" attitude of Army basic training.

"I'm not there to beat anyone up," Bender said. "The world does that enough to us. I create a safe place for them to express themselves and show them it's OK to be powerful and beautiful."

As for me, I'm all about becoming both powerful and empowered.

I have lots more energy throughout the day. And while I am not shedding pounds as fast as I had hoped, my whole body is becoming noticeably tighter and better toned.

I can actually do real push-ups now, which makes me feel just a tiny bit like Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane." I love driving home as the sun comes up, my muscles already humming.

The tradeoff to getting up so early in the morning is an hour of lost television time at night, and promising not to eat fried foods and sweets or to drink alcohol.

"Cheating" results in a punishment workout at the end of the session. When the cake comes around at my daughter's birthday party I take a pass. Not worth it. I'm actually surprised how little I miss the junk.

The challenge for me will be maintaining what I've gained after the program ends. Can I wake up in the morning and get out the door on my own? I'm not sure.

I know this. I'm a lot closer to getting into those pants.

Baby Boot Camp founder and Chief Executive Kristen Horler, left, leads a workout for Kara Chalmers while her 5-month-old daughter, Gabriella Chalmers Huff, sits in a stroller during an outdoor exercise class at Phillippi Estate Park in Sarasota, Fla. - AP