Holiday fitness camps catching on among Hong Kong's professionals

Fitness retreats challenge both body and mind

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 December, 2014, 5:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 December, 2014, 5:49pm

Ah, holidays. A time of relaxation, pampering and doing close to absolutely nothing. What's not to love?

Lots, apparently, for a growing group of people whose idea of a great holiday is working out rather than vegging out.

A typical day may begin with a 6.30am wake-up call in time for a 7am CrossFit workout on the beach or other morning adventures such as surfing, canyoning or free-diving. A hearty breakfast follows - Paleo, of course - and then some free time for a massage, a lounge by the pool, or even another workout.

Soon, it's lunch time, but nothing too heavy because up next is a skills session, which ranges from basic gymnastics training and trampolining to advanced lifting techniques.

If you're a CrossFit rookie, you'll be introduced to the popular fitness regimen that's known for its brutal strength and conditioning workouts.

Then, it's a restorative yin yoga session that promotes recovery from the day's activity. Finally, after a huge Paleo dinner, you can lounge by the pool or get another massage. Or, you can just crash, because tomorrow the schedule repeats - and again, for a whole week.

Call this a holiday? You've got to be kidding.

John Stanton, co-founder of Ninja Camp Bali (whose itinerary is described above), laughs when I point out the irony of a "boot camp holiday".

"What we have found is that most high-achieving professionals, in particular in Hong Kong, have difficulty incorporating wellness into their day-to-day lives," says Stanton, a clean-tech venture capitalist and CrossFit practitioner who started Ninja Camp last year.

"To us, 'wellness' is a combination of exercise, relaxation, proper sleep, nutrition and stress management," he says.

"The 'ninja' experience is relaxing and restful for our attendees because they eat amazing food, get daily therapeutic massages, and work out with professional trainers and athletes through a well thought-out programme that is designed to challenge but not wipe them out.

"Conversations with other 'ninjas' are stimulating and emotionally rewarding. Add eight-plus hours of sleep every night, and you leave rejuvenated and excited about tackling your daily life - with insight into how to incorporate wellness into your day-to-day life," Stanton says.

Koh Tao CrossFit in Koh Samui, Thailand, started a year ago with a similar seven-day package of twice-daily CrossFit training, yoga sessions, other sports such as paddle boarding and scuba diving, and healthy meals.

Peopkle who place a focus on fitness in their everyday lifestyle still want to work out when on holiday
Brad Woodhouse, Koh Tao Crossfit

"We find that people who place a focus on fitness in their everyday lifestyle still want to get their workout when on holiday," says the resort's business development manager, Brad Woodhouse.

"This holiday experience is targeted at active people, but we also offer people plenty of time to take advantage of the sun and the ocean to relax."

Koh Tao CrossFit offers accommodation options ranging from budget to resort, starting from US$1,100 per week (excluding flights and dinners).

Ninja Camp is pricier - from US$4,200 per week (excluding flights) - but you're paying for luxury. The eight-bedroom resort nestles among terraced rice paddies near the black sand beaches of Canggu in Bali. It has 14 hospitality staff, four chefs, five surf instructors and three CrossFit trainers. Occasionally, guest instructors are invited.

Lauren Anderson, a travel consultant with Flight Centre, says that in the past year there has been a rising trend of people seeking to get fit on a holiday.

Fifteen week-long Ninja Camps have been organised so far, with a total of 70 guests. With a growing demand for such vacations, Stanton says there'll be more camps next year, including one in Guatemala, and possibly New Zealand or Japan.

Woodhouse also has expansion plans for Koh Tao. "We are seeing a growth in the Chinese market in this region and would love to invite more people to experience a week in paradise," he says.

Howard Ilderton, 34, a keen CrossFit practitioner, first attended Ninja Camp with his fiancée in August last year after seeing an ad at a yoga apparel store. They liked it so much they went back again this October.

He agrees that "boot camp holiday" is an oxymoron, but says Ninja Camp strikes a balance between activities and mind and body relaxation.

"As a result, you feel energised and motivated without feeling drained from too much exercise," he says. "The activities are not primarily focused on fitness but instead are more about experiences."

In fact, Ilderton was so inspired by his experience that in February this year, he left his 12-year career as a senior trader at Citigroup to help open a CrossFit gym.

Most of Ninja Camp's participants have a similar background as Ilderton's: "competitive, high performing, successful and incredibly driven people", says Stanton.

Hongkongers form the bulk of Ninja Camp's participants, followed by Australians, Americans, Swiss, and South Koreans. Participants are mainly in their mid-20s to mid-30s; hail from professions such as law, finance, engineering and real estate, or are entrepreneurs - and 60 per cent are women.

Stanton says that such people "look for exactly this kind of holiday: to balance being pampered with being challenged".

Of course, being challenged is relative. Jumping lunges, dive bomb push-ups and broad jump burpees could be a stroll in a park or a slog, depending on your fitness level. Participants of boot camp holidays tend to keep fit regularly, however, rather than treat these week-long trips as a crash diet.

In most cases, Woodhouse says, participants have tried a CrossFit class, but it's not mandatory. "We cater for all levels of fitness," he says. "You just need to be active and have some understanding of fitness."

Stanton says workouts are adaptable to guests' fitness levels. As one of Ninja Camp's tenets goes, "Do one thing a day that is out of your comfort zone."

The only other two camp directives are: "Don't be late for meals" and "Try not to sit in the same seat at meals so you can talk to everyone".

Indeed, camaraderie and food are two important elements of boot camp holidays, one being fuel for the soul and the other for the body.

For Kimberly Ciszewski, 39, a Pilates instructor from Hong Kong, Ninja Camp has transformed her mentally.

"I was able to face fears and try things that I didn't expect to succeed in," she says. "Now if I am presented with a similar challenge I will try it and go into it with a positive attitude."

A boot camp holiday is as easy or as hard as you make it, says Isaac Searant, 19, a bartender from Australia who attended Koh Tao CrossFit.

"This isn't just for crazy CrossFitters," he says. "This is for anyone who enjoys a challenge."