The group was dozens of push-ups deep at Coolidge Park hours before sunlight would break the horizon and touch the nearby Tennessee River. Their shadows stretched long between streetlights on the park's sidewalks as they jogged between workout stations.
The men, drenched in sweat by 5:30 a.m., are part of the growing local chapter of F3, a nationwide program of free, boot-camp style workouts for men. The three "Fs" stand for fitness, fellowship and faith.
Men show up at the chance for a free workout, but they keep waking up for the early morning sessions because of the support network that is created, said Nick Spinelli, one of the local organizers.
The Chattanooga chapter launched in November 2016, Spinelli said. There are eight workout groups across Chattanooga, with a ninth coming soon on Signal Mountain. Around 100 local men participate, with multiple morning workouts Monday to Saturday, Spinelli said.
The Coolidge Park group meets Thursdays. Last week, the men warmed up with a series of jumping jacks, burpees and push-ups around the park's blue rhinoceros. Each exercise they do has its own nickname in the F3 program, such as Willy Mays, Merkins and Carolina Dry Docks. The group then moved over to the cement bike path for a series of presses, curls and squats with a rock borrowed from along the river bank.
Jim Gilliland joined the group in the fall of 2018. The 63-year-old, who goes by the nickname "Iron Butt" in the group because of his marathon motorcycle trips, said he works from home so having social hobbies like F3 are helpful.
He has lost 21 pounds since he began making the early morning trek to Coolidge Park, but that is not why he stays, Gilliland said.
"You start coming because of the fitness, but you stay because of something else," he said.
Across the country, feelings of social isolation and loneliness are increasing, leading to negative physical and mental health effects, according to an analysis compiled by the American Psychological Association. One study, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, found social isolation has the same risk factors for death as obesity.
Due to social stigma, men are often hesitant to open up to others about their feelings or struggles they may be facing. Men can fall into a hermit-like existence, avoiding healthy social contact with others. A group like F3 looks to break those norms, Spinelli said.
F3 is not part of any specific faith, though members are welcome to talk about their religion during the group circle at the end of the workout, Spinelli said. At the most basic level, the faith component involves thinking about things greater than the individual and improving their community. F3 helps build leaders, he said.
When the Rev. Gregg Hauss started with F3 several years ago, he could barely do five push-ups, he said. He was training for a half marathon at the time and the accountability was helpful. When participants do not show up to a morning workout, they are confronted on social media or on the team's Slack channel.
"Guys are calling you out to come workout in the morning, so I know I have to be there," Hauss said.
Hauss is the campus pastor at The Point Church at Signal, part of Red Bank Baptist Church. Red Bank's senior pastor, the Rev. Sam Greer, is also part of the F3 Coolidge Park group. The 45-year-old pastor, who led the Thursday group, said the workouts create opportunities for men to get to know one another, which can often be difficult. Men often struggle to share challenges they are facing in their lives, he said.
"When you go out here and be vulnerable with each other physically then you can be vulnerable with what's going on in your life," Greer said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Find him on Twitter at @News4Mass.