For outdoor enthusiasts, warmer weather means not only relaxing in nature, but also breaking a sweat amongst the elements.
While you can enjoy a wide variety of workouts from the comfort of your home, the great outdoors takes your options to the next level by providing a change of scenery, fresh air and affordable ways to work up a sweat. Plus, there are some impressive mental health perks to exercising in nature.
Here are some of the easiest ways to get moving outside, along with the impressive health benefits of doing so.
Not in the mood for an intense workout? Walking is one of the most basic forms of outdoor exercise, but its health benefits are unparalleled. Walking is easy on your joints—just one hour of walking every week helps ease joint pain. Regular walking is also associated with a decreased risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD). The best part? You can do it virtually anywhere.
Health Boost: A large study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found walking for just 20 minutes a day, five days a week, to be associated with 43% fewer sick days. Meanwhile, women who walk seven or more hours a week have a 14% lower risk of developing breast cancer, according to a study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.
While hiking is similar to walking, it’s an experience all its own. Exploring new trails of various lengths and difficulties leaves a lot of unknowns at the beginning of a workout, making it both a mental and physical challenge.
Health Boost: There are clear health benefits to navigating tougher terrain and being surrounded by nature. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, you use 28% more energy when walking on rougher terrain versus walking on flat ground, leading to extra calorie burn.
What’s more, the Japanese practice of forest bathing (“shinrin-yoku”)—or the therapeutic act of spending time among trees—is associated with lower blood pressure, an improved immune system and reduced symptoms of depression, research suggests.
Ready to pick up the pace and get some fresh air at the same time? Try trading a treadmill walk for an outdoor jog. On a treadmill, you pound the same surface repetitively and the treadmill belt helps propel you forward. But when you run or jog outside, you navigate different types of terrain (grass, dirt paths and steps), and you do all the work of propelling yourself forward, thus working more intensely.
Health Boost: Jogging in general offers a slew of health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, by increasing “good” HDL cholesterol, reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. And one study found when older adults perform aerobic exercise like jogging or running, it can lead to an improved performance in tasks that require executive control (remembering and applying new information, as well as navigating impulses to respond quickly).
When you take your jog into the great outdoors (or at least around your neighborhood), the benefits increase. One study associated running outside with increases in positive engagement and energy and decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants also said they enjoyed the act of running more and were more likely to do it again.
New to jogging? Brianna Bernard, a personal trainer and the founder of Brianna Bernard Fitness in Minneapolis, says one of the best things you can do when you’re first starting out is pace yourself. “Running is about building your endurance, and if your pace is too fast in the beginning, you’ll burn out before you reach the finish line,” she says. “Start at a comfortable pace that you feel confident you can maintain throughout the duration of your run.”
High-intensity interval training—also known as HIIT—is a popular workout method characterized by short bursts of intense movement, followed by short periods of recovery. As its name suggests, HIIT is intense, but these workouts (which usually last between 10 and 30 minutes) are considered one of the most efficient ways to exercise.
Health Boost: HIIT—which can be done outside without equipment—can help you achieve the same results of moderate to vigorous training in half the time, making it an ideal workout for anyone crunched for time.
And if you’re taking your workout outside in the name of boosting your aerobic capacity, outdoor HIIT can further improve your ability to take in and use oxygen. One small study found completing four 20-minute HIIT workouts a week over a five-week period increased peak oxygen capacity in study participants by 9%.
Ready to get started? “Try running for 60 seconds and then walking for 60 seconds, and repeat for as many minutes as you like,” suggests Bernard. “You can increase the duration of your run as you progress and you can even shorten your walking time to intensify the workout.”
If you’ve spent all winter pedaling away on your stationary bike, more power to you. But now that the weather’s nice, try taking this practice outside, recommends David Chesworth, an ACSM-certified personal trainer and the fitness director at Hilton Head Health in South Carolina.
“Not only can biking be a stress-relieving activity that can be done both indoors and outdoors, but it’s a great form of cardiorespiratory exercise,” he says.
Health Boost: Biking targets a very specific set of muscles, according to Chesworth: the glutes, quads and hamstrings. And when you really push yourself, those muscles are challenged in ways few other workouts can achieve.
There are three clear signs of a true cardio workout, and biking checks all the boxes, says Chesworth. “Biking gets your heart rate up, it’s repetitive in nature, and it works large muscles,” he explains. In fact, the glutes, quads and hamstrings are the three largest muscles in the body.
If you don’t feel up to an all-out power ride, remember a short bike ride through your neighborhood during the workday is still beneficial. And when you pair that movement with the benefits of spending time outside, you’re more likely to return to your desk feeling refreshed and focused.
A favorite childhood activity, jumping rope can be a lot of fun, as well as an excellent workout. Jump ropes are very affordable, you can jump rope pretty much anywhere and the movement itself challenges the entire body as it improves your cardiorespiratory endurance.
Health Boost: Beyond its cardio benefits, jumping rope can improve coordination as well. A study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found pre-teen soccer players who incorporated jumping rope into their training routines had better motor skills after eight weeks. Plus, jumping rope burns several hundred calories in just 15 minutes, depending on your body composition, according to Bernard.
Curious where to start with a jump rope routine? Bernard suggests hopping on two feet for 60 seconds, hopping on your right foot for 30 seconds, hopping on your left foot for 30 seconds, and then hopping side to side for 30 seconds.
Equipment-Free Bodyweight Exercises
There are tons of workouts you can do in your local park, backyard or driveway that don’t require any equipment and can challenge your entire body effectively. And these types of exercises are more than just convenient—they come with some awesome health benefits, too.
Health Boost: Research suggests that bodyweight-only exercises like squats can provide different degrees of strength than working with gym equipment like a leg press machine because you have to maintain control of your posture independently and rely more heavily on stabilizer muscles.
Not sure where to start? If you’re focused on strengthening the muscles in your lower body, Bernard recommends exercises like:
- Squat jumps: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hinge at the hips and bend your knees, leading with your glutes, and perform a bodyweight squat. Once you reach the bottom of the squat, explode from the squat position into a jump. Return to a squat position as you land, and repeat.
- Walking lunges: With your feet shoulder-width apart, step forward with your left foot and bend the knee at a 90-degree angle while bending your right knee and lowering it toward the ground. Pushing off of your left foot, return to an upright position and immediately step forward with your right foot, bending the knee at a 90-degree angle while bending your left knee and lowering it toward the ground. Repeat.
- Glute bridges: Lie on the ground on your back with your knees bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Place your palms flat on the ground on each side of your body. Push through your feet and lift your glutes off the ground, raising your hips and belly button toward the ceiling. Squeeze your glute muscles at the top of your bridge and slowly lower your body back down to the ground. Repeat.
- Calf raises: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with your toes on the edge of a raised edge like a step or stair while holding onto any available railing. Lower your heels slowly toward the ground as far as your range of motion allows, and then extend onto the balls of your feet and squeeze your calf muscles at the top of the movement. Repeat.
When it comes to challenging your upper body, she suggests exercises like:
- Push-ups: Start in a high plank position with your arms straight, your hands placed directly below your shoulders, your legs straight and your toes pressed firmly into the ground. Bending your elbows, lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor. Pause for a moment and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
- Arm circles: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and extend your arms out straight to each side, parallel to the floor. Circle your arms forward using small controlled motions for 30 seconds. Then reverse the direction of the circles and repeat.
- Alternating forearm plank to high plank: Start in a high plank position with your arms straight, your hands placed directly below your shoulders, your legs straight and your toes pressed firmly into the ground. One at a time, bend your elbows and place your forearms on the ground, shifting into a forearm plank while keeping your core engaged and your hips as level as possible. One at a time, place your hands on the ground beneath your shoulders to return to the starting position. Repeat.
Try repeating one exercise for 30 seconds before moving on to the next, and see which exercises work best for you.
Before You Head Out
Once you’ve picked the hiking trail or path in your local park you want to try first, it’s important to arrive prepared so you can fully enjoy every aspect of your outdoor adventure.
A good pair of sneakers is a must for virtually any activity, and be sure to bring a water bottle to prevent problematic dehydration. Keep your skin protected from the sun’s harsh rays by applying a solid layer of your preferred sunscreen before you leave home, and consider bringing the tube along for reapplication if you plan on being outside for more than a couple of hours.
Apparel is all about personal preference, but moisture-wicking fabrics tend to be far more comfortable than cotton when exercising outside. A hat and a pair of sunglasses can also be helpful on particularly sunny days. If you’re interested in gathering data about your exercise for your overall fitness goals, consider wearing a fitness tracker. And if you love a good pump-up playlist, remember to pack a pair of water-resistant headphones as well.
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