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Fit Camp

Kicking butt with boot camp instructor Heidi Dalton


Published July 2, 2008 at 5:17 a.m.


It's a muggy Sunday in late June at Burlington's Oakledge Park, where the uncomfortable heat and humidity have driven frolickers from the usually come-hither green grasses and tennis courts. A couple of the playground swings squeak lazily while a yellow-and-white Sunfish bobs on the lake. When it comes to strenuous outdoor activity, it seems like everyone has decided to throw in the towel.

Everyone, that is, except Heidi Dalton, who may soon need a towel to mop up the sweat. Clad in a camouflage bandana, an Army-green T-shirt and black training pants, Dalton's busy alternating between push-ups, tricep-dips, football hurdles, side-to-side hurdles and cross-jabs.

The moves will feature in Dalton's upcoming "Extreme Boot Camp," a 75-minute, 12-session class at Oakledge Park, scheduled for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from July 14 to August 8. Having noticed a slew of summertime boot camps popping up in the Green Mountain State, I'm curious to know more about this new offering.

But at eight-plus months pregnant, I can barely tie my sneakers, let alone drop and give Dalton 20. So she's offered to give me a sneak preview of the punishment fitness fanatics will find when they enroll. Dalton lets me off easy in many ways, agreeing to meet me in the early afternoon rather than at the program's scary start time of 5:45 a.m.

Though Dalton's dressed like a drill instructor, the early-morning session is more about logistics than instilling a military regimen. "Most people don't have the typical 9-to-5 job and instead go into work around 8 a.m.," she explains. "So this gives people time to get their workout done first thing and still have time to shower."

As a personal trainer and instructor at South Burlington's Olympiad Health and Racquet Club, Dalton's well versed in other people's workout habits - and how they can wither in the summertime. "We had a similar class at the Olympiad, but when summer comes around, attendance at the gym starts to slow down, so we had to cut it out," she says. She decided to create the boot camp at Oakledge Park as a fresh-air alternative: "So I said, 'Well, I'll just do it on my own.'"

Certified by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America and the founder of her own company, Fitness Evolutions, Dalton has worked at the Olympiad for less than a year, but has already racked up some weighty credentials. She trained the 2008 Miss Vermont, 22-year-old Kim Tantlinger of Burlington, and has helped dozens of clients change not just their bodies but their lives.

"Back in February, I was concerned about my health - I was overweight and on blood pressure medications, so I signed up for personal training with Heidi," says Helene Rondeau, 57, of Burlington. "I've since lost almost 30 pounds, dropped my blood pressure to 88 over 57, and reduced my waist size by 10 inches."

Dalton's approach, says Rondeau, has helped her become more assured in the way her body moves and given her more confidence to do her job providing personal care. Still, Rondeau admits she's a little leery of signing up for the extreme boot camp class, given her health history.

When I first meet Dalton, she hardly seems like the type to intimidate, with her small stature and cherubic smile. But then she gives me the physical fitness and nutrition quiz that all the boot camp participants will take on the first day of class. I figure I'll ace it, but soon I'm sweating over a couple of the questions. I hand in the test, nervous about my performance - justifiably, it turns out. Dalton whips out a pen, marks a giant X next to two of my answers, and frowns disapprovingly. "Six out of eight," she says. Ugh: 75 percent.

And when Dalton starts demonstrating a typical boot camp class (tagline: "Rain or shine, it's butt kickin' time!!!"), I can see why Rondeau might be concerned. After a five-minute warm-up, the "recruits" go through a regimen of 10 exercises, starting out with two nonstop minutes of a resistance exercise such as push-ups. After a 15-second break, it's on to a cardio move such as jumping jacks for two more minutes. Fifteen seconds for a sip of a sports drink or a mop of the brow, then two minutes of, say, squats while holding a gallon water jug in each hand. Later, the two-minute intervals give way to one-minute and 30-second sets.

"What are people going to feel like?" I ask, interrupting Dalton's furious pace.

"Exhausted," she says. "That's the point."

And if they feel like hurling in the middle of their side-to-side hurdles? "They can stop and take a break," she concedes. "But at the same time, I'm gonna be kinda harsh. This is boot camp. That's the point - to challenge yourself, but also to feel the difference between challenging yourself and pushing yourself too far."

Dalton says she'll consider individual students' health backgrounds, and that her boot camp is about more than barking orders at daybreak. "There are a lot of boot camps going on right now," she concedes. "But most of them just have the workout, and that's it."

To make the Oakledge Park program stand out, Dalton is offering a nutritional component, based on plans provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the website. The government's advice is a bit on the basic side, especially for food-savvy Vermonters. ("Buy fresh vegetables in season" and "top off a bowl of cereal with some berries" are among the tips.) But it's free, helping to offset the $200 boot camp fee.

After investing part of her IRS stimulus check in a few personal training sessions with Dalton, Shelburne's Maria Valiente says it's worth it to pony up another payment for the boot camp. "I can go to the gym all I want, but it's so much easier when someone's telling me what to do," she explains.

Plus, Dalton promises a month of free training to the boot camp participant who has flawless attendance and shows the most improvement.

What about the rest of the recruits? Won't they be back to bad habits by mid-August after the class ends? Dalton assures that she'll send everyone home with enough exercises to keep them fit through fall. I'm not entirely convinced when it comes to those long-term results.

But after client Mary Dionne, 51, of Burlington, assures me that Dalton dealt well with her "feisty" personality, I realize Dalton may have a boot camp instructor's greatest asset: insight into the quirky things that motivate us. And I'm starting to eye the next best thing to an extreme boot camp: Dalton's post-pregnancy personal training package.