The Great Nature Gym
Outdoor Workouts Make the Most of Summer
by Carrie Jackson
Summer is the prime time to skip the gym and exercise in the fresh air. Studies show that outdoor workouts improve mental well-being and result in greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement. Exercising in nature can reduce stress levels even more than being indoors and can make a workout seem easier.
Many outdoor activities are free or low-cost, can be done solo or in groups and are easily worked into a schedule. From a simple walk in the park to an organized club meet-up, there’s no shortage of options to get the heart pumping.
There are a few factors to keep in mind when moving an exercise routine outside. Be sure to drink plenty of water, as the warmer temperatures can cause increased sweating and dehydration during exertion. Products like hydration packs provide an insulated way to easily carry water hands-free during a workout. While some exposure to vitamin D is beneficial, sun protection is essential as harmful UV rays can cause the skin to burn and lead to melanoma. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a waterproof, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and reapplying it every two hours. UVA rays can also lead to cataracts, macular degeneration and pterygium (a benign growth called “surfer’s eye”), so wear sunglasses that have UV protection.
An easy activity that can be done almost anywhere, walking requires only a pair of supportive shoes and a bit of wanderlust. It is a great introduction for people looking to get started with a fitness program. Relatively low-impact, it can ease joint pain, help reduce stress, improve sleep and boost the immune system. Research suggests that distance is more important than speed for health benefits, so add a leisurely stroll to a daytime routine.
As a weight-bearing exercise, running helps build strong bones and protects against osteoporosis. Over time, it can also reduce the risk of heart disease and lower the resting heart rate. Long- distance running is stellar for cardiovascular endurance, while sprinting is a quick way to jumpstart weight loss. Running clubs all over the country can help newcomers find inspiration, camaraderie and motivation when the couch is calling.
Cycling is easy on the joints, can help improve balance and is a great low-impact cardio workout. Biking can be done solo or in groups and is a great option for families, as even little kids can ride along. Many cities have bike-friendly street lanes, allow bikes on public transportation and have rental bikes such as Divvy available for short-term rides.
Classes in yoga and Pilates, traditionally done indoors, can be moved outside when the weather is nice. Practicing in the open air means breathing in higher quality oxygen while practicing deep breathing or moving through asanas. The ambient warmth allows soft tissue to relax more, making deeper poses more accessible. Plus, it’s just more relaxing to practice outside, and taking in the surroundings will heighten a mindfulness practice.
Canoeing, kayaking and paddleboarding can be done on any kind of open water, including lakes, ponds and rivers. These activities strengthen the upper body as well, and water itself can have a calming effect. Take a class or rent a boat for an afternoon paddle, either alone or with friends.
Popular in the 1990s, rollerblading is again having a heyday. Online skate manufacturer Rollerblade saw a 300 percent increase in sales at the start of the pandemic, as consumers looked for creative ways to get around outside. Rollerblading helps build endurance in a wide range of muscles, including upper legs, hips, back and glutes. It can improve balance, is easy on the joints and is just plain fun. Invest in a set of protective gear such as a helmet, wrist guards and kneepads to ensure safety.
To create workouts in the city, run up and down a hill or set of stairs, then find a nearby playground and do pull-ups on the monkey bars, tricep dips on a park bench and other bodyweight exercises. Or, grab a few friends and create a high-intensity interval training circuit in the park. Change up the routine and location to keep it fresh and fun.
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJackson Writes.com.