Fitness in the Great Outdoors

by Diane Lofshult on May 01, 2004


It’s been said that there is a season to everything and a time to every purpose under heaven. With 44 percent of participants in the 2003 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey reporting that they offer outdoor group activities (October 2003 IDEA Fitness Manager), it looks as though the time has come to exercise outside! Judging by the diversity of programs offered, today’s outdoor training is a breath of fresh air!

Everything Under the Sun

One pioneer of outdoor training is Suzanne Nottingham, fitness director for the Double Eagle Resort & Spa in June Lake, California. “You won’t find a spa more backwoods than this,” jokes Nottingham, originator of Outdoor Cross Training. Depending on the season, Nottingham also trains clients in ice and rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, mountain biking and wilderness survival in her remote location in the Eastern Sierra Mountains. “These programs target those [who want to] connect physically, spiritually and mentally with the deep backwoods.”

For those who are less adventurous, Plus One Health Management offers outdoor programs at corporate fitness centers and hotels across the United States. “Our offerings include an outdoor walking class, outdoor circuit training and outdoor boot camps,” says Grace DeSimone, director of group fitness and special projects. “For example, New York City workers in our WalkPlus class can get a lunchtime ‘breather’ by taking a guided walk through Central Park,” she says. “In our outdoor circuit training class and boot camps, we use whatever is available for the taking, such as trees, benches, picnic tables, stop signs, curbs, stairs and monkey bars. We’ve even been known to exercise on the rooftops!”

Come Rain or Shine

Tina Vindum is the founder of and lead coach at Outdoor Action Fitness in San Francisco and Marin County to the north, where clients exercise outside all year round. “We have a motto: ‘There is no such thing as inappropriate weather, only inappropriate clothing,” she says. “Outdoor Action Fitness blends the exhilaration of being outdoors in any environment, on any terrain, with traditional exercises and techniques. We also offer mind-body workouts like yoga in stimulating settings, such as urban, rural, mountain and beach environments.” Clients can choose to train one-on-one with a personal fitness trainer in the location of their choice, including their own backyard!

Like an intrepid postal worker, personal fitness trainer David Ferris prides himself on training outside in the rain, sleet or snow. “I train in daylight and after dark, rain or shine,” he says. “Americans have become such climate-controlled indoor creatures that they often forget that [exercising] outside is even a possibility. Just visit any gym on a sunny day and count the number of people grinding away on a treadmill. I take people outdoors because it’s an opportunity to explore the capabilities of the body and the wonders of nature at the same time.”

Alas, not every fitness professional lives in a temperate climate. At Northwest Personal Training & Fitness Education in Vancouver, Washington, weather rules the roster of programs. “We offer a greater number of outdoor sessions in the spring and summer months,” says co-owner Sherri McMillan. In warmer weather, Northwest conducts outdoor walking clinics, muscle and cardio circuits, and hiking clubs. “Snowshoeing is popular in the winter months, whereas our running clinics are year-round.”

At Plus One facilities, it all depends on the location. “In California, we can offer these classes year-round,” says DeSimone. “On the East Coast, we only offer them in the spring and fall. It’s too hot in the summer months.”

Gearing Up & Heading Out

Taking fitness on the road can present some equipment challenges. That’s why some trainers prefer to use the natural environment as their main tool.

“We use the available terrain, body weight and gravity,” says Vindum.

“I use natural features and obstacles, such as trees, stumps, rocks, steps and trails,” says Ferris. “Aside from that, I use resistance bands, medicine balls, jump ropes and abdominal pads.”

“In our Outdoor Cross Training program, we only use the natural environment, which people find quite refreshing,” says Nottingham. “In our backcountry survival class, a beacon and shovel are critical to survival.”

“Exercise tubes are great for resistance training,” suggests McMillan. “They’re not too heavy, so you can easily run or walk with them wrapped around the waist. We have a park close by, so we also have clients grab medicine balls, boxing equipment, ropes, etc.”

“We try to keep our outdoor programs equipment-free,” says Krista Popowych, program director for The Fitness Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. “However, we do require that our leaders take a cell phone and small first-aid pack along with them.”

Getting clients to and from outdoor locations is also sometimes a problem. “Transportation is an issue when it comes to hiking locations,” says Popowych. “We generally meet at our club and then head out from there.”

Liability & Injury Prevention

Training outdoors also raises liability concerns. Outdoor training can be risky for clients, owing to dangerous terrains, inclement weather, heavy traffic and the prospect of getting lost in the wilderness. That’s why some industry experts recommend reviewing your existing liability policy with your insurance carrier before starting any outdoor program. In many cases, a waiver specifying the type of outdoor activities planned may be needed. For example, many insurance policies do not cover extreme or adventure sports.

You might also want to develop some internal policies and procedures. “We have a risk management plan in place, and all clients sign an outdoor training release form prior to doing any outdoor activity,” says Popowych.

“Prepare and practice an emergency plan for any mishaps,” advises DeSimone. “Make it a rule that members must leave [from] the club and return to the club—no wandering off in the middle of class.”

“I keep my clients off slippery and unstable terrain when I can,” says Ferris. “I choose trees, logs, rocks and trails that are dry and stable. I also point out potential hazards along the way. I encourage new students to take it easy, since a lack of ankle or knee stability is most likely to affect them [when they are still becoming] accustomed to nature’s uneven surfaces.”

Even in the great outdoors, traffic can be a nuisance. “The biggest worry is finding a safe route,” says DeSimone. “In California, we’ve even had occasional coyote sightings!” Because of wildlife encounters and other emergencies, all Plus One outdoor trainers carry a cell phone and a fanny pack first-aid kit. DeSimone also recommends preparing clients with adequate warm-ups and cool-downs.

“We are staffed with emergency medical technicians, and our company’s owner is a registered nurse,” says Nottingham. “But I have never encountered an injury in 25 years of teaching outdoors! Injuries won’t happen unless the leader is inexperienced.”

“I’ve found the outdoors to be a wonderful environment for training,” says Ferris. “You and your students are exhilarated to be outside and enthused to work harder!”

“Clients love the change of scenery,” echoes McMillan. “So go for it! Start with a few outdoor programs or time slots, and build your program from there!”

IDEA Health Fitness Source, Volume 2005, Issue 4

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About the Author

Diane Lofshult

Diane Lofshult IDEA Author/Presenter

Diane Lofshult is an award-winning freelance author who specializes in nutrition and weight management topics. She is the founder of In Other Words, an editorial consulting firm based in Solana Beach, California. Reach her at