6 Reasons Why Nature May Be the Best Gym
Looking to inject variety into your clients' training experience? Sometimes the better option for staging a workout lies in the great outdoors.
Across the country, trainers are increasingly taking their clients outside.
From the trailheads of the San Francisco Bay Area to the boulders of Manhattan’s Central Park, more trainers and clients are lunging up hills, playing bear-crawl tag in the grass and soaking up the experience of exercising under open skies.
What is driving this interest? After all, gyms are climate-controlled spaces designed and outfitted to optimize exercise performance. The outdoors is subject to weather, traffic and uneven terrain. What’s the appeal of leaving an ideal exercise setting and embracing an uncertain outdoor environment?
Here, several fitness professionals who have integrated the outdoors into their programs weigh in and share their motivations for moving their clients closer to Mother Nature.
Reason 1: Clients Want It
“People want to be outside,” says Kristen Horler, MS, CEO and founder of Baby Boot Camp®, which she launched 16 years ago when living in San Francisco. Now based in Sarasota, Florida, Baby Boot Camp stroller fitness is a nationwide program focusing on cardio, strength and core workouts for moms with stroller-age children. Most of the workouts happen at local parks, using equipment moms can cart in their strollers. Horler says she still gets calls weekly from people wanting to set up a Baby Boot Camp in their cities.
She started Baby Boot Camp to give moms an opportunity to work out with their children without the guilt of dropping them off at daycare or having to pay for a babysitter.
“Everything is outside as much as possible,” Horler says. “Imagine being at the park and having your workout, then afterwards your little one can come out for playtime.” (Naturally, these programs move indoors if the weather does not cooperate.)
For Hank Ebeling, owner and coach at H4 Training in Wheaton, Illinois, the weather window for outdoor activity is short but impactful. Since opening 3 years ago, H4 Training has taken clients outside in the late spring and summer.
“People love it,” he says. “You’re outside; you’ve got trees. It’s a different vibe. It gets you out of a square box inside—especially in the Midwest when you’ve been freezing all spring and winter.”
Reason 2: Science Supports It
Science backs up the idea of humans’ innate desire to connect with nature. Dasilva et al. (2011) found that when participants walked inside on a treadmill, they felt more fatigue, tension and anger than when they walked outside, notes Jennifer Flynn, PhD, visiting instructor in exercise science at Maryville College, in Maryville, Tennessee. Moreover, participants experienced less fatigue and felt happier and more invigorated outside even though their walking speed was faster than it was on the treadmill.
Several studies have shown a correlation between being outside and feeling emotionally, mentally and physically better (Coon et al. 2011; Harvard 2010; Barton & Pretty 2010).
“Being outside, it almost provides a distraction,” Flynn says. “Humans are innately connected to nature, and so that’s one potential reason why that release would occur” (see the sidebar “Health Benefits of Outdoor Exercise”).
Reason 3: It’s Simple and Flexible
Trainers can easily adapt their outdoor workouts to their training style, company philosophy and local climate.
At H4 Training, Ebeling’s personal and small-group training company, outdoor workouts occur at local parks, and clients’ spouses can go along for free (friends are welcome, too). Ebeling uses basic equipment like bands and balls and puts down old mats for clients when there is dew on the grass.
“But for the most part we try to use what’s out there,” he says. That can mean integrating monkey bars and picnic tables into the workout. He also uses body-weight exercises and fun games like bear-crawl tag and partner mirroring—where one person picks a movement like jumping jacks or squats, and the other has to copy it.
“Don’t make it too technical or too detailed,” Ebeling advises. “Make it more simple. You’re outside, and you’re active and moving.”
Rick Richey, owner of Independent Training Spot in New York, uses the outdoors to train small groups for specific goals like Spartan® or Tough Mudder® adventure races.
“I just think it’s always nice for there to be some type of goal you’re striving for, so it’s not working out for the sake of working out or for losing weight,” says Richey.
He does his small-group training in Central Park, weather permitting. He uses everything from fartlek runs—sprinting from one light post to another or one tree to the next—to step-ups on benches and stairs.
“Everything that isn’t normally a fitness tool becomes a fitness tool,” he says.
Reason 4: It’s More Fun
Exercising outside feels like being a kid again.
“It’s nice to just go outside and play,” Richey says. “[The outdoors is] more conducive to playing, and when you can get people to see their fitness as more about having fun, you’re going to get more compliance and adherence.”
Tina Vindum, MS, owner of Outdoor Fitness in San Francisco, urges trainers to find creative, unique uses of outdoor terrain. She has used mailboxes, parking meters and even trash cans to do rows.
“The more clever you can be, the more fun [it is].”
Vindum says she also gets clients to connect with the environment, feeling the trail under their feet or the grass on their legs as they lunge forward up a hill.
“Mats on the sidewalk is not outdoor fitness,” she says.
Reason 5: It Matches Their Personality
Vindum, a former competitive skier and mountain biker, launched Out-door Fitness in 1995 after her own workouts convinced her that being indoors at the gym was not cutting it.
“It didn’t make sense for me to be a mountain athlete and not be on the mountain,” she says.
She took that passion and built it into a personal training career. Today, Outdoor Fitness boasts an outdoor fitness training and certification program. Vindum trains solely outdoors, rain or shine.
When the weather is cold or wet, the key is in the warm-up, she says. “It’s like jumping in a swimming pool. Once you’re warmed up, you kind of forget.”
Reason 6: It’s Good Business
Some trainers find that moving outdoors makes their services more attractive.
“We’ve actually gotten a lot of clients off of it,” Ebeling says of his outdoor workouts, noting that they create a buzz and that people at the park often inquire and follow up with him.
He sees that being outside also teaches people what’s possible—that working out doesn’t have to happen in a gym or be done in a complex way.
“You can bring fitness anywhere,” he says.
And that makes it so much easier to attract clients and keep them coming back.
Just being outside is better for our health: We get more vitamin D, our mood improves, stress levels drop, and we actually heal faster, according to research compiled by Harvard Medical School (2010).
Exercising outdoors even delivers specific benefits to children, say experts. Exercise science instructor Jennifer Flynn, PhD, points out that kids who spend more time outdoors are more physically active (Cleland et al. 2008; Cooper et al. 2010).
“One of the things that studies in kids have found is that typically just being outside tends to be associated with higher physical activity intensity,” she says. Cleland et al. (2008) found that children who spent just 1 more hour per week outside participated in 26.5 more minutes of moderate to vigorous play.
“That logically makes sense,” she adds. “When kids are outside, they’re bouncing around and they’ve got all this space to play in.”
A 2011 study by Dasilva et al. found that people had a greater sense of well-beingless fatigue and anger, and more enjoyment—when they walked outdoors than they did when walking indoors on a treadmill. The study’s participants self-selected a higher walking speed on outdoor terrain—yet they felt the exercise was less draining and more fun.
“I think really that’s one selling point for the outdoor activity,” Flynn says. “You’re getting a great workout, but it really doesn’t feel as hard.”
Improving Mental States
Humans need to be in nature, “otherwise we feel unwell,” says Tina Vindum, MS, owner of Outdoor Fitness in San Francisco. Vindum, who trains clients outdoors in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a master’s degree in kinesiology, serves on the faculty of the American Council on Exercise and gives speeches on the scientifically proven benefits of outdoor fitness.
Vindum says training clients outdoors improves their mental state and facilitates a release that comes from their innate connection to nature. “I’ve seen clients weep on the trail,” she says. “And it’s not because it’s so difficult. They’re so overwhelmed. It’s such an amazing feeling, and that’s the addiction.”
Being outside also challenges clients’ muscles in a variety of ways.
Kristen Horler, CEO and founder of Baby Boot Camp in Sarasota, Florida, says the fresh air alone is an added health benefit when exercising outdoors.
“I just think that not everyone is fully aware of how much better they feel to be breathing fresh air and being exposed to sunshine as opposed to the feeling when you’re indoors and there’s recirculated air and cold AC blowing on you. It’s almost as though it’s counterproductive to our body,” she says.
If you’re considering moving workouts outside and haven’t done it before, here are a few tips for a successful start:
- Monitor the weather forecast, including smog and pollen levels, ahead of time.
- Scout the area to ensure you have enough space for the number of clients you will have in a workout.
- Choose a clean area away from heavy traffic. If your workouts will be in the early morning or at dusk, be sure the place is well-lit.
- Select parks and open locations tucked away from crowded areas or busy streets, to avoid excessive air pollution.
- Check that the terrain will work for the planned workouts. (Consider hills versus flats, or look for a combination of these to give your programming a boost.)
- Walk the terrain, checking it for sharp rocks and holes. Clear what you can, and flag the rest so participants can steer clear of these areas for safety.
- Consider selecting a location that is regularly monitored by security cameras or police. Carrying a whistle and pepper spray for protection may also be a good idea.
- Assess the permitting regulations for group classes well before marketing any programming. Although parks are public spaces, many cities have requirements for organized use and for anyone doing business in the parks. Some cities charge a fee.
- Get your liability ducks in a row. If you don’t already have a liability waiver for clients to sign ahead of time, consult an attorney for help in creating one, and make it mandatory for participants to sign the waiver before engaging in exercise. Also check with your insurance company to be sure you are covered for events and workouts outside your gym. You may need additional coverage, depending on your policy.
- Pay attention to hydration in all seasons, but especially in the hot summer months.
- If you’re going to a park, bring a broom to clean up any trash or leftovers from previous park-goers.
- Be aware that more adventurous outings require proper expertise and intimate knowledge of the terrain. For instance, if you’re doing standup paddleboard workouts, partner with a local paddle-board company and hire instructors certified in water safety.
My husband, Jonathan Spears, and I have been training and enjoying outdoor activities since we first met over a decade ago. How madly in love with the outdoors are we? Well, we’ve run marathons and Spartan competitions, and we’ve trekked around the base of a nearby volcano in 2 days. We even got married at the finish line of a 10K race.
We live in Camas, Washington, just outside Portland, Oregon. We’re an hour’s drive from Mount Hood and next door to the Columbia River Gorge—with endless trails and all kinds of opportunities to be active outdoors. We started Spears Strong, our training company, to keep people in shape for whatever they want to do in life, whether it’s accomplishing something they never expected to be able to do or just running around with their kids at a playground.
We do standard hiking and trail running and more exotic stuff like standup paddleboard workouts. Our trainers are ADAPT-certified, a training philosophy that focuses on getting your body moving the way nature intended. And there’s no better place to do that than among the natural obstacles of the great outdoors.
When the weather is nice, we take our group workouts to local parks. Clients bring a yoga mat for warm-ups and cool-downs. We make sure we scout out the area first. If it’s raining (which happens a lot in the Pacific Northwest), we move to a shelter where we’re still breathing the refreshing air during our workouts.
Our clients love it, from watching the sunrise in a 5:30 a.m. workout to feeling the summer breeze in the late afternoon.
“To be able to have some blue sky above you and some fresh air to breathe in, that alone is totally worth it,” Jonathan says.
Spears Strong also takes clients on adventures like trail runs, forest hikes and obstacle-course training. We want to get people out of their comfort zones and give them something to train and live for. We love to take people out on an adventure—especially people who might not have the courage to do it on their own.
“We’re not doing advanced-level adventures. We’re doing something that’s, ÔÇÿHey come out and be yourself.’ We’re giving people their lives back,” Jonathan says. “Their life is owned by their kids, by their jobs, by their bills, whatever it is. We’re giving them the opportunity to just get outside and move their body while taking in some fresh air—to just be themselves.”
Barton, J., & Pretty, J. 2010. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improv-ing mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science & Technology, 44 (10), 3947–55.
Cleland, V., et al. 2008. A prospective examination of children’s time spent outdoors, objectively measured physical activity and overweight. International Journal of Obesity, 32, 1685–93.
Coon, J.T., et al. 2011. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental Science & Technology, 45 (5), 1761–72.
Cooper, A.R., et al. 2010. Patterns of GPS measured time outdoors after school and objective physical activity in English children: The PEACH project. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 7, 31.
Dasilva, S. 2010. Psychophysiological responses to self-paced treadmill and overground exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43 (6), 1114–24.
Harvard Medical School. 2010. A prescription for better health: Go alfresco. Harvard Health Letter. Accessed Apr. 5, 2017. www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/a-prescription-for-better-health-go-alfresco.
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