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Hackfit taps tech community’s interest in fitness

Hackfit participants take regular breaks for exercise, such as yoga, and eat healthier food during the weekend hackathons.

Hackfit

Hackfit participants take regular breaks for exercise, such as yoga, and eat healthier food during the weekend hackathons.

Computer hackathons — those weekend competitions where programmers spend sedentary hours writing code and gobbling junk food — are about to get in shape.

Hackfit, the Cambridge startup that aims to bring exercise and nutrition to the technology set, will stage weekend hackathons in nine new cities this year, after hosting its first locally in September.

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That inaugural gathering drew about 160 entrepreneurs interested in creating products that merge fitness and technology. Instead of working in small teams to develop ideas while munching on junk food over 48 sleepless hours — the traditional hackathon strategy — participants ate healthy foods, slept instead of coding all night, and made time for exercises such as cycling, rock climbing, and yoga.

Once word of the Hackfit concept spread throughout the tech world, people started clamoring for founder Justin Mendelson to expand.

“The idea to scale up so quickly came from people reaching out to me, actually, from all over the world — Singapore, Australia, and cities all over the US,” Mendelson said. “People were saying, ‘Hey, this is awesome. Are you coming to our city?’ ”

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Like a typical hackathon, a Hackfit event starts on a Friday evening with attendees pitching product ideas and forming teams, and concludes on a Sunday afternoon with judges picking the best prototypes.

But other hallmarks of the hackathon are expressly forbidden. Pizza and Red Bull are replaced by fresh vegetables and lean meats on a menu inspired by the paleo diet. Participants cannot work until their skin grows pale and eyes glaze over, but must take regular breaks for exercise and rest. If the smell of sweat invades the room, it’s because a group of coders has just returned from a run, not because they haven’t showered since Thursday.

Mendelson is planning the upcoming events with the assistance of three recent hires and his newly launched Hackfit Ambassadors Program, a network of geeky fitness buffs who want to bring Hackfit events to their cities and are plugged in to their local tech scenes.

In San Francisco, for instance, he teamed with Robert Ing, a former user-insights strategist for Google who is training for the NBC television show “American Ninja Warrior,” in which athletes compete on a modern obstacle course. Ing heard about Hackfit from his sister, who attended the first event last fall.

That event was held jointly at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development center in Cambridge and the Brooklyn Boulders rock climbing gym in Somerville.

Ing couldn’t make the trip that weekend, but contacted Mendelson and offered to lend a hand with a future event on the West Coast. He has since helped Mendelson pick a venue, line up speakers and judges, and will soon turn his attention to attracting attendees for the hackathon in March.

“It’s still very much a niche audience for something like Hackfit,” Ing said. “But there’s definitely growing interest in fitness in the tech community.”

Other locations of upcoming Hackfit events include New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. A second hackathon in the Boston area is scheduled for April, with a keynote address by Joe De Sena, cofounder of the Spartan Race obstacle course series.

And next fall, Mendelson plans to offer workshops to corporations where employees of the same company can work together on projects in a Hackfit atmosphere. People are more productive, he believes, when they are physically active.

Hackfit is catching on, said New York ambassador Kimberly Wong, not only because of its healthy weekend format but also because it helps like-minded entrepreneurs connect and potentially form lasting partnerships. “The healthy food and exercise is nice,” said Wong, a Google marketing manager and part-time spin instructor, “but the imperative is the health and fitness focus of the companies people are interested in starting.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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