There is no debating the health benefits of daily exercise. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health all agree that we need at least 30 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity every day. The good news is that you don't have to work out in a gym to get in shape. Outdoor exercises are just as effective, can be more fun, and have some appealing advantages.
Reasons to Take Your Workouts Outside
Outdoor fitness can be a structured exercise program that takes advantage of the natural terrain of the outdoors to get you in shape, or it can be as simple as taking a brisk walk outside. Outdoor fitness can take many forms: Raking leaves, for example, is considered moderate physical activity. If you weigh about 135 pounds, you can burn close to 250 calories by raking leaves for an hour.
Whichever way you choose to exercise outside, there are numerous benefits:
- No membership fees. The outdoors belongs to all of us. "You don't need any special equipment — the outdoors is available wherever you are, just outside your door,” says Tina Vindum, the author of Tina Vindum's Outdoor Fitness: Step Out of the Gym into the Best Shape of Your Life and the first outdoor fitness instructor accredited by the American Council on Exercise.
- The air is cleaner. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor air is more than twice as polluted as outdoor air.
- A free daily dose of D. Scientists recommend outdoor exercise as a way to get your vitamin D through sunlight. This is especially important if you are overweight — a recent study found that people who are overweight are almost twice as likely to be deficient in vitamin D.
- Exercise for your mind. "When you exercise outdoors, your mind becomes aware of the changing terrain. Whether you use the hills, the sand on a beach, or a winding path, your mind has to focus differently than it would on a flat gym floor," notes Vindum.
Getting Started With Outdoor Exercise
If you have any health issues, talk to your doctor before starting an outdoor fitness program. "I tell my people to have a goal in mind, start slowly, and work up to their potential. Outdoor exercise can be adapted to anyone's level of fitness," advises Vindum.
Here are guidelines to get you going:
- Exercise early. "People can always find more excuses to avoid exercising outdoors at the end of the day," says Vindum. In the morning your energy is higher, the air is generally cleaner, the temperature is lower, and you will feel better all day long.
- Avoid temperature extremes. Although your body can adapt to colder or warmer weather, you should avoid exercising outside in extreme heat or cold.
- Don't get burned. Although some sun is good for you, too much sun is not. "Always protect yourself with a good sunscreen, and wear sunglasses and a hat with a brim," advises Vindum.
- Drink enough water. "If you drink about 8 to 10 ounces of water 30 minutes before doing outdoor exercises, it should hydrate you sufficiently for a 30-minute workout. You don't need water with electrolytes in most cases," says Vindum. Remember that you can lose water through sweating even in cooler weather, and you may start to get dehydrated before you feel thirsty.
- Get some good gear. "Take advantage of the new technology that has gone into shoe treads and waterproof, breathable clothing material," advises Vindum.
- Make outdoor exercises part of your lifestyle. "You can learn exercises that use only body weight and gravity and do them while you are walking to the post office," Vindum says. Think about walking instead of driving. Plan outdoor activities with your family. Go for a hike instead of a drive.
"Why would you need bottled aromatherapy when you can go outside and smell nature? Outside exercise uses all your senses and connects your body and mind. As you become more physically fit, your mind also becomes more aware. You start to look at life differently. It can be a life-changing experience," says Vindum.
Get Inspired to Go Outside With These 5 Essays
For me reading and the outdoors go hand in hand. Whether diving into a book on the beach or in a tent before falling asleep, it’s hard to imagine a trip without something to read. While at work or in between trips, I often find myself reading books or articles that inspire me to get back outside. It’s the circle of reading and outdoor life! While you’re stuck staring at a screen inside (you better not be outside reading this. Put the phone down!) here are five articles to inspire you to get out there again.
5. How ‘friluftsliv’ can help you reconnect with nature.
Writing for Mother Nature Network, Russell McLendon tries to translate the Norwegian word friluftsliv to English and explain how Americans can use it to cultivate a lifestyle that will help them reconnect with the natural world. It literally means “free air life” which I think sounds like an awesome life. The article describes the close relationship Norwegians have with nature and their “freedom to roam” attitude. They even passed a law saying anyone has the right to explore undeveloped private property as long as they obey a couple rules. Accompanied by stunning pictures, this article definitely got me ready to go explore some undeveloped woods.
4. Taking yoga on a hike.
This article combines three of my favorite things: hiking, yoga, and Prospect Park. Susan Stellin, writing in the New York Times, chronicles her experience with the Hiking Yoga studio. The class meets up in Prospect Park and hikes to lesser known parts of the park and stops along the way to do balancing poses. Aside from doing yoga in the fresh air, Stellin’s instructor points out that when barking dogs or baseball games distract you, it’s a great opportunity to refocus your mind. This article is almost three years old now but I always find myself coming back to it. Finding a new favorite spot in Prospect Park while getting exercise in the outdoors seems like a win-win to me.
3. 10 Spectacular parks for stargazing.
While technically more of a photo gallery than article, I couldn’t deny you 10 gorgeous pictures of national parks at night. As co-authors Lynn Davis and Jennifer Errick point out for the National Parks Conservation Association, most Americans don’t have great stargazing opportunities where they live. From Nevada to Maine, this article lays out the places to pitch a tent and look up, and even highlights the best time of year to do so.
2. A hiker’s guide to healing.
Wild has brought a new appreciation for using the outdoors to heal your soul. Writing in the New York Times’ Modern Love column, Aspen Matis writes about how she also found solace on the Pacific Crest Trail. Wanting to walk and be alone in the wilderness after getting raped in college, her essay is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring. Aspen’s emotional journey is supplemented by her beautiful descriptions of the desert and the kindness of the people she meets on the trail. If you’re going through a tough time, don’t forget the immense healing power of going for a walk.
1. Essay: Goldbug
Drinking coffee outside is one of life’s simplest pleasures. The cup of coffee first thing in the morning, while it’s still cool enough to warrant a sweatshirt, is one of my absolute favorite things about camping. So Catherine, writing in Misadventures Magazine, pulls me in right away with her description of finishing her coffee before she sets out for a day of hiking in the desert. Add hot springs and the moment you realize nature can help you forget all your worries, and you’ve got me packing my bags for my next trip outdoors.
By Susan Torres - check out her blog here.