A group works on their boxing during the Wreck Center Bootcamp on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022, during one of the F3 free, peer-led workout for men outside the Ridgland Recreation Center on Lake Street in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Every morning, men from Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and, occasionally, from Chicago’s West Side communities gather outdoors at dawn, rain or shine, to work out. 

The men are part of the Fitness, Fellowship and Faith (F3), a network of exercise groups that build physical bodies and social bonds by providing men with supportive friendship groups. The faith component is for individual members to determine. 

Organizers established the network in 2011 in Charlotte, N.C., while members launched the local group in 2019. 

Josh Andersson of Oak Park got involved with a Chicago F3 group before deciding to form an Oak Park chapter in 2019. The chapter began with six members before dropping to three or four when the pandemic started. 

“We were observing social distancing [and other precautions], but we knew we needed the group because the fellowship was so important,” said Andersson. “Just getting together and having social interaction was vital to the four of us. It was a highlight of my day, to be honest.”

David Osta, also of Oak Park and a member since 2019, agreed. 

“It was a way to stay connected and avoid social isolation,” he said. “Even if we were physically distant, we were building connections.”

Andersson said the group now has around 60 members and hosts roughly two workout sessions daily. He said there are usually between five and 15 people at each session. 

They host the workouts at four locations in Oak Park: Ridgeland Common, 415 Lake St.; Pilgrim Congregational Church parking lot, 460 Lake St.; the south side of Lindberg Park, 1150 N. Marion St.; and at Washington Irving School’s parking lot, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave. 

They also work out at River Forest’s Priory Park, 7354 Division St.; near Forest Park’s Kribi Coffee Roastery, 7324 Madison St.; and in Austin at the Columbus Park golf course parking lot, 5701 W. Jackson Blvd. 

The groups usually meet at 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. on weekdays and 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Saturdays.

Andersson said the exercises are held in the morning because it’s an excellent way to start a day and because it’s easier to talk oneself into not doing them after work. Oak Parker Mrunil Champaneri, a member since July 2020, said he found it beneficial.

“Exercise is a great way to start many days. You get up early, do some hard work, and it kind of gets you in the good frame of mind,” he said. 

Champaneri also said that exercising in Columbus Park has broadened his worldview.

“I’ve been in Oak Park for 21 years, and I realized how insulated I was,” he said. “We live a mile away from Columbus Park, a beautiful park, but it’s east of Austin Boulevard, and I never ventured east of Austin Boulevard. It’s a bit of an invisible barrier.”

The group exercises in virtually all weather, no matter the season, to encourage accountability and “expand your mind beyond your comfort zone.”

“Even in the negative 20 chills, we bring hand-warmers. We’re active, always moving, ensuring no one is standing around too much.” Andersson said. “Lightening is the only reason we might call it off. When it rains, the first exercise will be on the ground.” 

Andersson emphasized that they want to ensure everyone feels welcome and supported.

“We want to make this group available to all men, and we want to make sure that no matter your fitness level, you won’t get left behind,” he added.

Osta estimated that most members come from Oak Park and River Forest, with fewer coming from Forest Park and Riverside. Osta said the group connected with 773 Peace Runners, an East Garfield Park running group that also does outdoor workouts. 

“We’ve had, not a ton, but a few [Austin residents] join us for workouts, and I would say it expanded my circle and my point of view of my community – it’s not just Oak Park, but the surroundings,” said Champaneri.

All three organizers said they appreciate the friendships they made in the group. Andersson said he built deep friendships simply because the group met in the same place four to five times a week, saw each other struggle, and supported each other, which helped build deeper connections.

“You do pushups with somebody, and you show these vulnerabilities — it opens up some friendships,” Andersson said.

Osta said when his basement was flooded, he notified the group in their Slack channel and got a response within 45 minutes. He also said there had been many instances when the group rallied around members with other needs – from meals to moving furniture.

“I’ve been an amateur mover at times,” Osta said. “It’s nice to take a few minutes and be helpful to someone else. You know the favor will be returned. We help each other.”

Champaneri said this spirit of mutual assistance expands to the community. F3 Oak Park volunteered at East Garfield Park-based Breakthrough Urban Ministries, helping with food donation distribution and youth programs. The group has also volunteered at supportive housing facilities on the West Side and with Beyond Hunger, the Oak Park nonprofit. 

Osta said they don’t want to stop there.

“There’s a lot of great organizations in the area,” he said. “We want to make sure we become more visible to them, so we can make ourselves available to them.” 

For more information about F3 Oak Park, visit www.facebook.com/F3OakPark

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...