- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sweat poured off 76-year-old Dick Bissell’s face as he trudged up the hills of Northwest Washington early Monday. But like his 100 or so fellow exercisers scrambling around Meridian Hill Park, nothing could dampen his attitude.

“There’s such positive reinforcement that even an old fart like me can hang in,” said Mr. Bissell, a retiree from Mount Rainier, Maryland.

Hugs, high-fives and camaraderie abound among the local chapter of the November Project, a national fitness group that directs its members to get out of the gym and exercise at monuments, landmarks and public parks.

The D.C.-area branch meets at parks and landmarks at 6:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Lifetime membership is free, and everyone is invited 365 days a year, rain or shine.

“We’re more focused on building an all-inclusive community where people can come and be themselves and not have to reach into their pocket to pay for fitness. Workout comes second,” said November Project volunteer Steven Christensen, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.

Mr. Christensen founded the D.C. chapter in 2013, when the number of cities hosting a November Project group nearly doubled from four to seven. He is a photographer, workout leader and, perhaps most important, cheerleader for the exercise group.

“Grant, [are you] going for that record? Go, go, go!” Mr. Christensen shouted at a muscular man charging up a hill. “We have a bet going on: Who can run the hill fastest. We keep track on [the mobile running/cycling app] Strava. [Grant is] really fast.”

Each workout begins with a “bounce,” in which exercisers huddle, jump up and down and “get comfortable with being uncomfortable” by touching index fingers or making eye contact with one another.

Then, group leaders explain the day’s workout regimen. Monday’s was grueling yet simple: run around the perimeter of Meridian Hills Park, stop and do five pushups in the middle of the hill, and then do five burpees — a combination pushup and squat thrust — at the top of the hill. Repeat for 35 minutes.

“It’s not like a fitness class where we’re standing up in front saying, ‘All right, do this, then do this.’ It allows people to kind of socialize while they work out instead of having to pay attention the whole time to know what they’re doing. They can meet new people, they can run with their friends, whatever. It’s a great time,” Mr. Christensen said.

Workouts on Mondays and Wednesdays usually run 30 to 45 minutes, and Fridays about 20 minutes. Monday sessions are at Meridian Hill Park or the U.S. Capitol during the last week of the month, and Wednesdays are at the Lincoln Memorial. To add a little fitness flavor, Friday workout locations are kept under wraps until Thursday evening, when the mystery site is revealed via Facebook.

“People get to go to different areas of the city that they never would have explored without the November Project,” Mr. Christensen said.

Getting permission to sweat in D.C. parks hasn’t always been easy, though. After some publicity on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the November Project was asked to stop running the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and obtain a permit, for which group members worked hard.

This Wednesday, the group’s stair fanatics could rejoice: The Lincoln steps were back.

“We have heard from the National Park Service. We’re still negotiating a few things, but I can tell you that this Wednesday we’re back on the stairs,” Mr. Christensen announced to the group, which responded with a roar. “Thank you guys for all your support, all your letters that you sent. All that stuff really helped. So, pat yourself on the back, maybe like pat someone else on the back, or maybe just tickle someone’s ear.”

Why all the effort to stay in landmark areas of the District? The goal is to change the city from within by building community, said Mr. Christensen.

“It’s really just building that positive energy and taking that positive energy that people get from coming to the November Project and then just kind of spreading it to the city,” he said.

For the November Project participants, change starts with a simple “hello.” One running passer-by shouted, “Do me a favor. Say, ‘Hi,’ to blond Steve on his way by. We recruited him while we were cycling.”

Mr. Christensen obliged as the newcomer trudged up the hill.

“I hear you’re blond Steve. It’s good to meet you. I’m brunette Steve,” Mr. Christensen said with a smile.

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