November Project aims to remove financial, motivational barriers to exercise

Money, time and motivation are common barriers preventing many people from getting proper exercise. Adam Kreek checks in with organizers of the November Project and sees the positive impact they are having on communities.

Free group workouts help build sense of community

Organizers of the November Project workout in Victoria are helping people find their exercise groove. From left to right: Casey Winkler, Rumon Carter, Brogan Graham, Bojan Mandaric, Shannon Kane, Jason Ball. (Adam Kreek/CBC)

It's 7:32 a.m. The hour-long November Project workout is over. My chest is wet and dirty from doing burpees. My shin is bleeding from falling on the hill climb. But it was well worth it: Endorphins are flowing, I saw the sunrise, and I just hugged a dozen strangers. Together, more than 150 of us worked hard to get fit in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park.

The November Project is a free, group-fitness program that started in Boston as a way to stay fit during cold-weather months.

Biologists say we experience an increase in feel-good hormones through group activities like laughter, exercise, music and dancing. For example, a 2010 study in Biology Letters showed that rowers who exercised in a group had a higher level of pain tolerance compared to rowers who exercised alone. The theory is that group exercise heightens the production of certain chemicals. But scientists only tested athletes after the exercise was completed.

On this chilly December morning, I'm not feeling my endorphins kick in. My current circumstance involves 25-year-old girls in yoga pants and 45-year-old men sporting headlamps kicking my butt on the hill climb. Every former high-performance athlete gives a special gift whenever they enter anything mildly competitive. It doesn't matter if I lose a rowing race, a running race, a darts game or a French spelling bee — the victor can exclaim, "I just beat an Olympic gold medallist!" I digest a slice of humble pie as I grind towards the body in front of me, grateful for some extra group motivation.

Rumon Carter, a trained lawyer and a wilderness running enthusiast, encouraged me to join the group. He founded this local sweat project with Jason Ball, a local boot camp leader, and Shannon Kane, a former Canadian national team rugby player. Their goal? To build a greater sense of community.

Bojan Mandaric and Brogan Graham, the November Project's founders from Boston, led this morning's workout. The former collegiate rowers came up with the idea on a November night in 2011 while looking for motivation to stay fit following their varsity years.

"I'm a fat-ass," Mandaric explains candidly when I ask how the November Project got started. "I wasn't rowing for the (Serbian) national team anymore. I was just sitting on my ass, playing video games and eating my wife's delicious cooking. I would gain 20 to 30 pounds [over the winter]. Spring would roll around, and I would start working out again."

Concept spread quickly

To break this cycle of flabbiness, Mandaric and Graham made a pact: To meet for a workout at 6:30 a.m. every day. "We went through the whole month of November, and we were like, 'This is kind of fun,'" Mandaric recalls in his faint Serbian accent. "As you know, rowers have to track everything they do, so we created a Google spreadsheet. Brogan called it the November Project. That spring, we started inviting friends. Those friends brought friends. Four years later, here we are in Victoria, our 27th city."

After the first Boston "tribe" took shape, other cities soon followed: San Francisco, Madison, Wis., and Edmonton.

Part of the November Project's success is that is addresses some fundamental barriers that stop us from exercising, like weather or financial cost. A recent study published by the American Heart Association showed that heart failure patients had more success maintaining health when they had lower barriers to exercise. All November Project workouts are free. They're also "weather-proof", encouraging all participants to show up rain, snow or shine.

Former physicist and national-class runner, Alex Hutchinson now writes a blog about the science of training and fitness. "Exercising with partners or in groups has all sorts of benefits that have nothing to do with neuroscience, from the simple act of committing to meet someone to the pleasures of gossiping during a workout. But the endorphin findings help explain how exercise is transformed from a chore to a lifelong habit."

"Last fall in Boston we had a workout where we had 1,400 people — before work," Graham adds. "We just hosted our third November Project Leadership Summit in Utah, where we had 26 city leaders and 600 people overall." Endorphin production or not, this movement motivates large groups of people to healthier lifestyles.