I survived Camp Nerd Fitness, zombie dog and all

For four days this month, CNET's Michael Franco took part in a different kind of camp for adults. He came back changed -- and not just because he was turned into a zombie.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
6 min read

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The author at the glow party. After losing the lightbulb that was on top of his hat, he taped a plastic cup up there. Pretty nerdy, huh? Will Byington Photography

I'm sitting in a rocking chair on a covered porch looking out at the mist-clad hills of North Georgia as rain softly falls. A zombie dog wanders by and I scratch it behind the ears. In the rooms behind me, and in Hogwarts downstairs, people are doing things like having paper-airplane and Mario Kart contests and learning to break boards with their feet.

I'm at Camp Nerd Fitness, where campers fight with swords made from PVC and bounce off big inflated blobs into the icy waters of a mountain lake -- in between discussing whether Star Trek's USS Enterprise could take the Star Wars Death Star, of course. As a longtime nerd and a fitness enthusiast, the place sounded like nirvana, so I couldn't resist attending when I heard that camp was being held at a conference center in Clayton, Georgia. That's just an hour and a half from my home.

In case you haven't heard of it, Nerd Fitness is a website that helps people get fit by borrowing from sci-fi and gaming terminology. Members of the site become part of the "rebellion," exercise challenges are called "quests" and the overall goal of becoming part of the very active community is to "level up your life." The site was started by Steve Kamb, who introduces himself like this: "I'm a nerd. I deadlift."

Too nerdy or not nerdy enough?

Kamb began Nerd Fitness in 2009 as a blog, instantly drawing an active community of people who weren't necessarily comfortable in traditional fitness environments like gyms. You know, nerds. As a free site, people could read Kamb's inspiring blog and support other nerds in their fitness goals. Kamb initially monetized the site by offering e-books and now makes money when people sign up for the Nerd Fitness Academy, a program that delivers workout routines, exercise videos, nutrition tips and members-only Facebook groups.

From those early days of Nerd Fitness, the site attracted followers faster than Ms. Pac-Man gobbles dots. Last year, Nerd Fitness had picked up enough steam to host its first camp, which was attended by 150 fitness-minded nerds. This year, that number doubled, and I was lucky enough to be included in the ranks. The price for camp ranged from $825 (about £542, AU$1,132) to $895 (about £588, US$1,228).

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Nerd Fitness founder Steve Kamb rallies the minions during the opening ceremony. Will Byington Photography

While many people drove to camp, many more came from such far-flung places as Turkey, New Zealand, Australia and England. They flew into the Atlanta airport and took a camp-provided shuttle to the campground, about two hours away. During that time, they got to meet and socialize, so they arrived at the site perhaps knowing a person or two. I drove down from my home in Asheville, North Carolina, so I didn't know anyone.

That became a bit of an issue for me at meal time. Meals -- which stick pretty closely to the Paleo ideal of protein and vegetables -- are served cafeteria style, so you get your grub and then need to find a place to sit down. All at once I was back in middle school, a Dungeons and Dragons nerd in braces, tray in hand, trying to figure out where I could sit and maybe fit in. All the other campers seemed to be doing fine, chatting along and laughing. But that only added to my anxiety as social groups had seemed to have been formed by some kind of Harry Potter magic I didn't know how to master.

I eventually found an open seat, plopped myself down and hoped for the best. The conversation flowed, but not exactly smoothly. In part I worried that I simply wasn't nerdy enough (imagine!) as some conversations I overheard featured video game and anime references that went over my head. Also, I'm a consummate introvert, so just sitting down with strangers and starting a conversation just doesn't come naturally.

My stay at Camp Nerd Fitness (pictures)

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That first night, I finished my meal quickly to get the awkwardness over with and headed to my bunkhouse. Sleeping arrangements at camp consist of large bunkhouses with about eight bunks and common rooms, as well as a semi-private room with two beds. I was lucky enough to be in a semi-private room with a polite and non-snoring roommate (I can't really say the same about myself). Even in the main bunk rooms, which were segregated between male and female, each camper got both a top and bottom bunk, so there was plenty of space for gear and getting ready for the parties held each night.

I was still feeling uncomfortable with so many strangers, and although people were polite, it seemed that my fellow bunkmates already worked up a rapport so I retreated to bed, thinking I might have made a mistake by committing to spend three more full days in a place where I didn't fit in. And, if I didn't fit in among nerds -- whom I consider my people -- where did I fit?

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Nerds? All I see are heroes! Will Byington Photography

The next morning, I jumped right into the exercising.

Camp Nerd Fitness offers a huge range of workshops. There are energetic classes like parkour, sword-fighting, tricking and combat skills; paleo cooking classes; meditation classes; and classes on dealing with depression or building self-confidence. Being a 47-year-old with a bad heel and lots of other aches and pains, I stuck to the foundational movement and yoga classes. (Sadly, there was no Star Wars-themed workout.)

After the first few classes of the day, things began to shift for me.

Unlike many fitness environments, this one was completely non-judgmental and supportive. No one was there to show off and, if you were having difficulty completing a task, you quickly learned that people were there to help and root you on rather than snigger behind your back.

Likewise, I was there to support others -- whether holding their legs up straight as they tried a handstand or showing them how to do an exercise I had mastered quickly. The nurturing vibe also came from the instructors -- called headmasters -- who went above and beyond to give individualized attention to anyone who requested it.

This environment impacted me in a couple of ways.

First, I realized that I wasn't going to be judged no matter what. And that included falling off the 2-inch slackline I loved trying out or sitting by myself and reading at lunch.

Perhaps more importantly, it allowed me to stop judging others, a trait I struggle with, having been raised in a critical household. Meeting people without all that noise in the back of my mind let me see the good in them rather than what I believed were their faults. That in turn led me to be much less guarded, and camp opened up for me.

I'm OK, you're OK

For the rest of my time there, I was able to be completely myself. Sometimes that meant talking a lot, jumping into a game of Cards Against Humanity or dancing like a fool during the nightly cosplay, glow and Rubik's Cube parties. Sometimes that meant sitting at the end of a long table staring off into space. It was all OK.

And isn't the goal of any fitness program to feel OK?

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Camp was a true mix of fun and fitness. Will Byington Photography

By the time camp ended on Sunday, I can't say I had made tons of friends or been the life of the party. But I can say I walked to a waterfall in the pouring rain; that I tried my first glow-stick limbo and failed spectacularly; that no matter how hard I tried, "the CNET guy" (as I came to be known) couldn't get any of the gaming systems to work; and that I took off my pants in public to trade colors during the Rubik's Cube party, where the goal was to trade your multicolored attire to wind up in just one color (I went for orange).

And it was all OK.

That's the genius of Camp Nerd Fitness. You have to first learn to be yourself before you can become a better version of yourself -- and the camp environment excels at letting that happen.

And oh yeah, I also got turned into a zombie and befriended a zombie dog. But to find out more about that, you'll just have to check out the gallery above.