Could taking your workouts back to nature come with some wellbeing gains?
According to statista.com, 10.3 million people in the UK have a gym membership, and the gym and fitness market’s annual turnover is predicted to be worth an eye-watering £2 billion. It’s safe to say that going to the gym is part of our cultural fibre, and you’ve seen the gym selfies to prove it.
But, of course, sweating it out in the gym isn’t the only option when it comes to working on our fitness, and there are wellbeing gains to be had from taking out the structure, and following your feet towards movement that feels best to you.
Dubbed ‘green exercise’ by a study published in the journal Extreme Physiology and Medicine, researchers believe that exercising in nature can have both physical and mental health benefits – including stress reduction, restoring mental fatigue, improving mood and self-esteem. They also note that green exercise also leads to an increase in physical activity, as it lowers the levels of perceived exertion – just think, how long can you walk on a treadmill compared to strolling through beautiful landscapes?
But what does rewilding your workouts look like in practice, and what else do you have to gain from it?
Opening the door
When Rachel Rodgers’ personal trainer suggested leaving the gym to exercise in the park, she was mortified at the thought of exercising where she walked the dog, and in front of people who knew her. But there was a good reason behind this suggestion.
“At the time, I had accepted a promotion for the large dog rescue charity I was working for,” Rachel explains. “I had gone from being outside with dogs to being on a computer 8am to 6pm. I was always inside. She had noticed my engagement in our sessions had dipped, and that I was not in a good place emotionally. I was cancelling sessions regularly because of ‘work commitments’, but really I had just lost all interest.”
Although reluctant at first, Rachel soon saw that the fresh air was taking her workouts to the next level.
“With any workout, no matter how reluctant you are to do it, you always feel better afterwards. But the difference was huge for me when doing my personal training sessions outside. I was much more upbeat, happier, and more relaxed. We even then went to outdoor yoga with sheep!
“Even though the early starts can be hard to get into, my mood and productivity at work following the sessions are so much better. Listening to the birds, feeling the ground beneath your feet, it all plays a role.”
Her anxiety and stress levels, and even her skin, improved, to the point where Rachel is considering ending her gym membership to workout exclusively in the outdoors.
One foot out the door
But, of course, it doesn’t have to be a case of either/or. Sheryl Morris is a personal trainer who works in an indoor gym and also an outdoor gym, called Cargo Gym. It operates from a shipping container in a sports ground, a huge open space surrounded by trees, using typical gym equipment like free weights, and also running circuit style classes in a beautiful setting.
Sheryl tells us that many attendees say that they prefer the outdoor gym to the indoor gym, saying that they feel they work harder with fewer distractions, and they feel closer to nature, feeling cleaner, and more relaxed – many also feeling safer since the start of the pandemic.
“During the first lockdown I had to think on my feet with regards to not only my clients, but my own training, and this is when I started to use the South Downs Way to train people and myself,” Sheryl says.
Famous for its stunning scenery, the South Downs in East Sussex provided her with climbs up hills, vast expanses of fields, and many obstacles to take advantage of.
“I would plan a session based on a circuit route, and the client and I would hike, jog, and sprint – but also take advantage of various benches and steps for some tricep dips, jumps, or toe taps along the way. We would stretch at the start and end the workout on top of the cliffs, often watching the sun come up over the ocean. It’s given me a big rush of serotonin just recalling it!”
If that sounds idyllic to you, you’re not alone.
“One of my clients, in particular, benefited from this training as they were experiencing a lot of anxiety. They got into incredible shape both physically and mentally, which they wouldn’t have done at an indoor gym, because they had no desire to train in that kind of environment.
Reconnecting them with nature was the perfect way to help them find fitness that they loved again.”
Listening to the birds, feeling the ground beneath your feet, it all plays a role
Sheryl highlights a good point here, that good health is so often about finding out what works for you and following that route, rather than sticking to what is more familiar and which works for others – who might have a multitude of needs and desires that differ from your own.
“I can say with absolute certainty that working and training outside works wonders for your physical and mental health. It’s so beneficial for everyone, not just those who experience poor mental health. It’s something I never thought I’d end up doing and, even though my own training is currently indoors, I walk miles outside each day as it makes me feel great, and I now can’t do without it.”
Taking it back to nature
Ravi Davda is the CEO of Rockstar Marketing, a digital marketing agency. Here, he shares how he found new joy in getting outside and breaking away from structure:
"I'm someone who's loved the gym for many years now, so when the pandemic started, one of my main concerns was not being able to go there. The gym is somewhere where I can be in my own space for an hour, somewhere go to destress.
“I'd always been strict about my workouts, too. Every workout would be logged in a gym diary. The pandemic changed all of this. I started walking more. I don't mean walks to the shops, but walks in nature. I started running again (I hadn't run outside for a long time, it was always on a treadmill). Sometimes, I would go to my local park, lake, or field, and do random bodyweight exercises, such as press-ups, burpees, planks, or whatever I felt like doing. It wasn't about what I did, but more about being outside, embracing nature, and getting some exercise. I loved it. Especially during the summer.
“When gyms opened up again, I got a membership but didn't go back to my old routine. I loved being outside too much! Instead, I did a couple of days in the gym, and a couple of days of exercise outside. Now that the weather has got dark and cold, it's harder to enjoy being outside, but I still get out when I feel like it. It just goes to show there's more to workouts than being in a gym."
On the right track
At a time where we’re talking about the concept of ‘rewilding’ in a lot of different areas of our lives and processes, it makes sense that we might want to apply that to the way that we take care of our health.
Yes, it might be hill-sprints out in the open, but it might also be getting a group of friends together to do an exercise routine in the park, doing a spot of yoga in the back garden, or just going on a cheek-warming walk around your local area. However you choose to do it, it’s safe to say that combining the benefits of exercise with the extra boost of being out in nature sets a solid foundation for good health.
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