Trends & Features

Former soldiers are adapting their skills to get civilians fitter

By Adrian Hill

The string of wars and conflicts ongoing around the world, plus their role in the fight against terrorism, has made the popularity of military personnel among the general public as high as it’s ever been.

The plight of those with life changing injuries from the battlefield and the families of those who never came back has also captured the imagination of grateful millions in the UK.

For those who have finished their service in the army, navy or RAF, the inevitable question is: what now? Sadly, it’s a fact that many find the transition as tough, or even harder, than their careers in combat.

It’s reckoned one in 10 of Britain’s estimated homeless population of 90,000 are former military personnel. Yet there are many success stories to be found and an increasingly number of fulfilling and lucrative post-armed forces careers are being eked out in the fitness industry. It’s a case of military discipline and willpower meets the need to lose weight and/or get fitter. A seemingly perfect marriage.

British Military Fitness
The British Military Fitness brand was founded in April 1999 by Robin Cope and Harry Sowerby, spawned from a chance conversation around that fateful ‘what now?’ question.

“We were sitting on the film set of Saving Private Ryan – we were extras,” Sowerby explains. “I had returned from the reserves and had just completed my Army PTI training. Robin, who had reached the rank of major, had been training with his girlfriend in a park and she said to him: ‘Why don’t you become a personal trainer?’. Robin suggested we set up a company.

“We had no business plan, but put £1,000 in each to put an advert in the Evening Standard and bought some computers. We then stood in Hyde Park and waited. 10 people turned up and off we went.”

The idea was to get people of all fitness abilities outdoors training in parks. BMF now operates in 135 locations across the country employing over 500 instructors, all either former or serving soldiers.

“We didn’t see anyone or copy anyone back in 1999,” Sowerby adds. “In the parks there were only team sports or people going for a jog. We chose not to call it boot camp, as that’s an American term. We don’t shout at people or belittle people, as they do in boot camps – that’s the difference. We try to motivate people, as is done in the British military. Therefore, British Military Fitness was the name we went for.”

BMF operates a tiered bib system whereby people of different physical ability are separated into coloured bands – red for beginners, red for intermediates and green for advanced. At larger venues the groups are paired down further. At their first class, newcomers are given a health questionnaire from which any pre-existent health issues and injuries can be flagged up.

Xtreme Boot Camps
In Worcestershire, Xtreme Boot Camps was started in October 2013 by mother and son team, Zoe and James Evans.

The concept of getting soldiers to help the fitness fight has reached all shades of the public. Tattoo parlour owner Samantha Patterson says she went from being overweight and unable to walk upstairs without being out of breath to taking part in half marathons, mud runs and high intensity training, thanks to a series of week-long camps and weekly sessions with XBC.

Patterson says: “I am now doing things I never dreamed possible. I have more energy than I have ever had and take part in some form of exercise every day. Anyone can make the change if they’re prepared to put in the hard work. XBC has helped me all the way and pushed me to never give up. The variety it provides has meant exercise is no longer boring.”

Cost effective
In financial terms, these military sessions can be more cost effective than employing a fitness specialist on a one-to-one basis. The customer needs to make a buy-in, though, to fulfil their ambitions within a group. Perhaps not ideal for all, but it’s the assistance given in the mental battle, which is often as tough as the physical challenge for those who are not natural athletes, where the soldiers believe they can make a difference.

“It costs £40-140 per hour to employ a personal trainer – our sessions cost £30-50 per month,” Sowerby states. “With personal training, it’s you and one other person. Ours is a group activity and you will make friends. It’s about motivation.

“We have all been up mountains with a rucksack the size of half a house on our back. We know how it feels to think you can’t do it, but we did it and we will do all we can to help you. We see ourselves as a vehicle to get you where you want to be or never thought you would get to.

“It’s about personal goals. One woman told us we had helped her so much that she could now wear jeans for the first time in 14 years.”

A business model of an outdoor activity employing so many instructors and with turnover annually at risk from a bad winter needs a boost from elsewhere. BMF has started to operate classes at workplaces, with the likes of Travis Perkins, Wickes and Blacks among its clients.

As well as two classes a week, there are regular health checks and fitness assessments. Individuals who don’t normally work together join up with a common goal that, it’s claimed, is good for esprit de corps.

Sponsorship deals
Sponsorship is another income provider and this year BMF has entered into an initial three-year agreement with Blacks. The benefit for clients is the offer of a 20 per cent discount at the outdoor retailer. A similar arrangement is in place with Under Armour.

“We have put ourselves out there, something which we were perhaps a bit slow to do,” Sowerby admits. “What we will not do is sell out. We get approached by a lot of companies and sometimes we say: ‘Sorry, but no thanks’.

“We have so much still to do in the UK. We have a training academy, where you can work towards a level four fitness qualification recognised by the Ministry of Defence. If you have a military background and you’re good, we can give you a job.”

Military Madness
In addition to those who have moved on from the forces, serving soldiers are also operating in the industry.

Perry Lane has been a physical training instructor in the army for six years and in his spare time has developed his own company, Military Madness, in west London. Lane is on a year-long posting in the area recruiting for the army.

Think of military fitness and images of soldiers with heavy backpacks yomping through forests comes to mind, but Lane’s sessions follow a similar path to British Military Fitness in terms of adapting the physical exercise programme used in the forces for civilian use.

Lane explains: “I had a small injury that necessitated some recovery and rehabilitation time, so I posted a message on social media asking if anyone would like to train with me. Six people turned up and it showed there was scope for this in my area.

“I now have 150 people on the books. We have neuroscientists, directors and people who work on checkouts in retail stores. I work with them early in the morning or in the evening to fit around my job. My commanding officer in the army is more than happy that I do it and I use serving or ex-serving soldiers as instructors.”

Like BMF and others in the industry, Military Madness pays a fee to local authorities for its use of parks. It’s also working in colleges and universities in west London training lecturers.

“It’s a great way of networking and allows me to link up with my job in army recruitment, as I’ve been able to set up a military recruitment stand at the colleges,” Lane says.

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