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 the crack of dawn, rain or shine, to work out. 

F3 Oak Park is part of the Fitness, Fellowship and Faith (F3) national network of exercise groups. As the name suggests, the goal isn’t just physical fitness, but to build positive, supportive male friendships and work together to do something positive for their communities.  The “faith” aspect is left up to the members’ interpretation. 

A group participating in the 7 a.m. 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

The network was founded in 2011 in Charlotte, N.C., and the local group launched in 2019. While the group organizers said they get physical benefits, what they appreciated most was the bonds they form along the way. They also said being in the group expanded their worldview and led them to volunteer in Oak Park and on the West Side of Chicago.  

Josh Andersson of Oak Park got involved with a Chicago F3 group before deciding to form an Oak Park version in 2019. It started with six members, but that number dropped to 3 or 4 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“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, 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, who joined the group around late November/early December 2019, agreed.

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

Andersson said the group’s membership grew, slowly at first, then picking up speed as COVID-19 vaccines became widely available. Today, the group has around 60 people, and they grew to having an average of 2 workout sessions a day. Andersson said there are usually anywhere between 5 and 15 people per session. 

The workouts are held at four Oak Park locations – 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 a good 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 that he personally found it beneficial.

“Exercise is a great way to start off many days, you get up early, you 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 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, which is 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 chill, we bring hand-warmers, we’re very active, always moving, making sure 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. We’re going to get wet anyway, so we might as well start with some sit-ups.”

That said, Andersson emphasized that they wanted to make sure everyone feels welcome and supported.

“We want to make this group available to all men, we want to also make sure, 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 a smaller portion coming from Forest Park and Riverside. Osta said the group made connections with 773 Peace Runners, an East Garfield Park running group that also does outdoor workouts, joined in on occasions, and some other West Siders joined in on occasion. The members agreed that this is one area where they’d like to grow.

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

All three organizers said they appreciated the friendships they made in the group. Andersson said he was able to build deep friendships simply because the group met in the same place 4 to 5 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 really opens up some friendships,” Andersson said.

Osta said when his basement was flooded, he put out a call for help on the group’s Slack channel – and he got a response within 45 minutes. He also said there have been many instances when the group rallied around members in need. whether it’s delivering meals or moving furniture.

“I’ve definitely been an amateur mover at times,” Osta said. “It’s a nice thing, to take a few minutes and to be helpful to someone else and 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, as well as doing some maintenance at the nonprofit’s Men’s Center, 402 N. St. Louis Ave., and Women’s Center, 3330 W. Carroll Ave., supportive housing facilities. They have also volunteered with Beyond Hunger.

Osta said they don’t want to stop there.

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

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