Are you ready to join the Rebellion?
That question propelled Luke Skywalker from Tatooine to the far reaches of the galaxy, spawning seven great movies (well, four out of seven), an entertainment behemoth and a story that captured the imagination of moviegoers for decades.
Now, Steve Kamb is asking the same question.
Kamb, 32, is the New York-based creator and “Rebel leader” of Nerd Fitness. Even though the online community speaks of being a rebellion (members picked the term to be aligned with the light side of the Force), Nerd Fitness has become an empire. Close to 300,000 subscribers receive emails from nerdfitness.com, which gets nearly 1.3 million page views a month.
The Academy, a self-paced online fitness regimen created by Kamb to be fashioned like a video game, has more than 20,000 paid subscribers. Nerd Fitness offers NF Yoga, a guided online course with Kamb and two other instructors. And later this year, nearly 400 members will converge in Georgia for the third iteration of Camp Nerd Fitness.
“It’s got this magical, perfect mix of fun and function where you really don’t see anywhere else,” said Maya Ogranovitch Scott, a 32-year-old “Rebel” from Denver.
Kamb grew up playing “The Legend of Zelda” (and pretending he was Link) and reading the “Harry Potter” books and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He said he used these as a mode of escape.
Yet it was these stories that drew Kamb to envision his life as a journey, defeating the bad guys or overcoming challenges to reach the next level.
“I truly fell in love with this idea of, ‘What if life was this movie that we’re currently playing a major role in?’ ” Kamb said. “I love the idea of the hero’s journey, of being a character that goes through trials and tribulations and emerges as a transformed, leveled-up version of themselves.”
Before starting Nerd Fitness, Kamb said he gravitated toward the wizard character, who started off as inept and lacking confidence but who found his power by the end of the story.
“I was a scrawny, weak kid myself. I desperately wanted to be stronger and feel better about myself,” Kamb said.
This idea became the journey Kamb details in his book, “Level Up Your Life,” published this year. He decided to gamify his fitness life, assigning energy points to the various foods he ate and creating levels of complexity in different exercises.
This gamification extends to the Nerd Fitness platforms. In addition to Kamb’s articles on nutrition and behavioral psychology, he offers workout plans that are set up as part of a game. The successful completion of a set of body-weight workouts means one can move on to the next level.
“We all start at Level 1. It’s getting wrapped around the idea that you’re not going to get into shape overnight but this also is not going to be miserable,” Kamb said.
As the name suggests, nerds rule in the Nerd Fitness universe. In creating the site, Kamb wanted to target those who feel like outcasts, who don’t fit into a typical fitness program and who may not fit into some social circles.
Ogranovitch Scott said Nerd Fitness came to her at the right time, as she was struggling with staying fit while working and going to graduate school. “It was nice to have someone in the fitness community speak my language,” she said. “I’m pretty geeky, and the video game metaphors got to me.”
The site encourages Rebels to find their niche via six role-playing-style guilds based on athletic abilities. For example, Scouts are the endurance runners, while Monks are into the martial arts. These guilds interact with one another in the message forums and in person with meet-ups.
Ogranovitch Scott, who’s a leader of the Assassins’ Guild (popular activities: parkour, free running and “Ninja Warrior”-style obstacle challenges), said the gamification that Nerd Fitness brings to working out and eating well makes the journey a lot more fun. She said the mini-challenges each guild takes on monthly bring competition and camaraderie.
“Suddenly, it’s not, ‘Oh, I need to go to the gym, and it’s so tedious.’ It’s that, ‘I’m training to be a superhero, and my team needs me or the Justice League is going to be defeated!’ ” Ogranovitch Scott said.
Ashley Stipek, 25, a public affairs professional in the District, found Nerd Fitness via a November 2014 meet-up, which she had attended at the invitation of a friend. She felt welcomed by the community. “I found this fusion between people who are like, we can go out for a run together or lift together and we can sit down at a brunch and ask, ‘What is your superpower?’ and everyone has given it serious thought,” Stipek said.
Despite the controversies that arise with gender and gaming online, Ogranovitch Scott said Nerd Fitness is the only online space where she hasn’t been body-shamed or bullied for being a woman who’s into fantasy and anime.
Although most start Nerd Fitness with a fitness goal in mind, Kamb wants members to use the system in other areas of their lives. His model? The “Epic Quest of Awesome.” This isn’t an abstract idea but a kind of progressive bucket list with levels of achievement. According to Kamb’s Epic Quest, he’s working toward deadlifting 405 pounds (he’s currently at 390), and he’s learning to play the violin so he can perform an Irish tune in a pub in Dublin.
Ogranovitch Scott is questing to get her aerial yoga certification, while Stipek aimed last year to save enough money to make it to Camp Nerd Fitness. She’ll be there this fall.
“When I bought my ticket, I achieved that quest,” Stipek said. “Everyone was so supportive and so happy to see me at camp. That’s the community you’re looking for.”
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