Use this field guide to help you reconnect to the natural world.
For many people, an exercise routine means getting in a car, driving to the gym, slogging away on an elliptical machine and then retreating back to their homes or offices, where they sit down in front of the blue glow of a computer, TV or tablet. But there’s something missed when exercise takes place only in indoor gyms and fitness studios. Trading up some of your gym time for time on the trails, the river or the bike path can bring benefits beyond improved fitness.
Discover the perks of going green.
“Green space is not just a luxury,” says Jolanda Maas, a Dutch sociologist who has studied people’s living environments. “It’s essential for good health.”
One theory has to do with our ancestors. Not so many thousands of years ago, we survived by hunting and gathering. “Greenness, water and plants relax us, possibly because they signal access to food and shelter,” says Seattle-based environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen, Ph.D.
“Science shows that when you take a walk outdoors, you lower stress-hormone levels and are in a better position to adapt and adjust to life’s constant changes,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Natural surroundings can also motivate us to move more. Few people know this better than Tina Vindum, a former professional skier who is now a self-described “outdoor trainer” in San Francisco. Her clients do predictable things like pull-ups and lunges—but from tree limbs and on hillsides. “Every movement in the gym is exactly the same,” said Vindum. “Our bodies are smart; they go on autopilot quickly.” Finding your footing on grass, rocks and roots, on the other hand, activates more muscle fiber for stability—something you’ll rarely get on an indoor surface.
Vindum says her clients are also just plain happier outdoors. “And no wonder—the gym is an artificial place where you run on a machine that goes nowhere,” says Peeke. “Outside, you’re connecting with something much bigger, and there’s a sense of joy.”
How to reconnect with nature.
You don’t have to live near a majestic mountain or forest to get more from the outdoors. You can benefit simply from taking your workout outside around your neighborhood. Here are some ideas.
Walk or bike to work. If you live close to your office and the roads are safe, combine your commute and workout. Pair the calorie-torching challenges of hills and wind with views of sky and trees—there’s no healthier way to start or end your day, says Kathleen Wolf, Ph.D., who bikes 20 miles round-trip from her home to her job at the University of Washington in Seattle. For the perspiration-conscious: Keep a change of clothes and work shoes at your desk and change when you arrive. Or carpool or take public transit into work and walk or bike only on your way home.
Keep your car in the garage! Thirty-three percent of car trips are made within just two miles of home. On days when you can do errands within this radius, put on a pair of comfortable shoes, strap on a good backpack with padded straps and travel by foot.
Pay attention to your surroundings. Find a quiet place to sit or stand for a few minutes before you start your outdoor workout. Take a few minutes to focus on breathing deeply, feeling the texture of the ground beneath you, observing the colors and textures of trees and plants, and listening to the breeze, birds or any other sounds around you. Keep this awareness as you start your workout, to help you get the most out of your surroundings.
Take the gym outside. Almost any exercise that can be done in the gym can be done outdoors, often more effectively, says trainer Tina Vindum. Look for a park, nature trail or other green space near your home or office and try the exercises below.
Four outdoor strength-training exercises to try.
Strengthens hips and legs.
Facing a hill or steep street, take a giant step forward with your right foot. As you lean into the hill, keep your left leg long, with your weight propped on your toes and your left knee pointing down; sink your right hip toward your right heel, bending your right knee 90 degrees. Inhale as you lower your hip; exhale as you push through your back toes to the starting position. Repeat, alternating legs, 10 to 20 times.
Strengthens shoulders, abs and quadriceps.
Sit with your back against a tree, knees bent 45 to 90 degrees, pressing your heels firmly into the ground. Pull your lower abs in and up, toward your lower back and spine. Raise your arms out to your sides and hold them parallel to the ground at shoulder height. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
Strengthens abs and hips.
Hang from a sturdy tree limb or monkey bar, using an overhand grip. Slowly lift your knees toward your chest and lower your legs back down. Repeat 5 times. Work up to 20 reps.
Balanced leg raise
Strengthens calves and improves balance.
Stand on a root, step or curb, hanging your heels over the edge. Engage your calf muscles by spreading your toes, lifting your heels and balancing on the balls of your feet. Slowly lower your heels back down and below the edge of the step. Repeat 10 to 20 times.