Here’s my challenge to all you gym warriors out there: start exercising outside this week.
Maybe you agree with me here. After leaving years’ worth of sweat on countless gym floors, I have come to the conclusion that there must be a better way. Authors, scientific research, and mental health experts increasingly agree: exercising outdoors is better for us.
In the book, Your Brain on Nature, it says, “Scientific studies have shown that natural environments can have remarkable benefits for human health. Natural environments are more likely to promote positive emotions.”
How did we get to the point as a culture where we believe that in order to get a great workout, we need to go to a special place packed with complicated machinery being vigorously attacked by sweaty, disgruntled people in spandex, most of whom would rather be absolutely anywhere else? Including us?
What are we paying for, really?
If you stop to think about it, the average gym is a nightmarish place. Fluorescent lighting casts a ghostly glow on machines that look straight outta the Inquisition, and feel about the same when you’re using them. Add to that mirrors that expose our every imperfection, and the recycled air heavy with stale sweat – it sounds like a mild version of hell.
How have we been duped into paying for this experience? At the very least, the average gym is not somewhere most of us would like to spend our time. It’s not a place for moments we truly cherish in life.
Fitness doesn’t have to happen this way, friends.
Train amidst beauty when you start exercising outside
Watching the sun rise over the harbor with friends; humming along with evening songbirds in the park; or pausing in a meadow to drink in the aroma of wildflowers on the spring breeze — these moments don’t happen at the gym.
But they can and do happen when we choose to take our exercise routine outside, into the real world: onto the unexplored streets and piers of our cities; through vibrant spring fields and up breathtaking mountain paths.
When we could row on a real river, why would you row on a machine indoors, robbed of the thrill of wind and water rushing all around you? Why would we slog on a treadmill, confined to a narrow track, going nowhere — when we could be exploring streets and mountains and hidden pathways with our own two feet, experiencing the freedom of unfettered mobility in a world so vast and exciting we will never, ever exhaust it?
If a healthy body that gives me the freedom to explore an infinite world is my vision of heaven, then a healthy body trapped on a narrow treadmill in a stinking, never-changing gym is my vision of hell.
I challenge you to work more outdoor time into your exercise schedule this week. Not this month, or this year. This week. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or hot or rainy outside. Do you go to the gym to be comfortable?
Switch at least one day of your routine outdoors. If you swim in a pool, jump in a lake. If you run on a treadmill, run around your block instead. If you lift weights, go to the woods or the city park and squat some logs.
Is training away from machines in our comfortable, hyper-controlled environments, the most precise or convenient thing in the world? No. But trust me, you will feel so much more alive.
What happened to community at the gym?
Do you ever wonder why nobody’s ever invented a football machine for the gym? Or a softball simulator. Actually, people have invented those things, which I think is terrible. They’re called 24/7 sports commentaries.
A better question would be – would you rather play football or softball with other people outdoors – running and sliding and catching and cursing and laughing with real people, friends, teammates – or hop on a treadmill while watching somebody else play the game you love on a flatscreen tv?
What’s even worse is that all the people we would need to get into something real with are all around us at the gym. But we’re oblivious to each other.
When you start exercising outside, you’ll really notice how modern isolate us from each other. How many people do you see who aren’t plugged in when they’re working out? Are you? One of the saddest things to me about going to gyms is seeing row upon row of people on treadmills, ellipticals, and squat racks, all completely ignoring each other.
We get to the gym and change quickly; plug in our earbuds and hammer out the best we can do on our favorite mechanical torture device; then go back to the locker room, change quickly, and get the hell outta there. Nobody talks to each other anymore.
We’ve sacrificed community on the altar of efficiency and convenience, and we’re left with a prison of sweaty isolation.
Enjoy training outdoors with others
I can’t speak for women, but when I played sports in high school, wherever the team went — the bus, the field, the track, the weight room, the locker room: it was chaos — Somebody was always laughing or shoving somebody or pouring an unpleasant liquid down somebody else’s pants.
Even when practice was tough or we lost a big game, we were all having a great time, because we were in it together. We had the space to be in it together, to share a common bond of mutual suffering and joy that comes from training together.
You can chalk some of that up to being teenagers, but not all of it. There’s something about moving our bodies outdoors, in the wide-open places of mankind’s original playground, that gives space for community. You just can’t do that on a treadmill.
I challenge you to bring more community into your outdoor exercise routine. Join a local pick-up sports group on Meetup.com. Bring a friend on your run around the abandoned quarry outside town. Grab a buddy and hike up a mountain. Convince your friends to do yoga at sunrise on the pier.
Working out outside is free
Maybe you don’t subscribe to my particular brand of melodrama. That’s ok. You don’t need to. Have you considered that exercising outdoors is 100% free?
Need I say more? If you ditch the gym and let the great outdoors be the training grounds for you and your friends, consider what this could do for your budget. What other priorities could you spend that money on? How you could use the savings to start investing in your financial health even while you improve your physical health?
What do we want from exercise?
If you’re still not convinced that you should ditch the gym and start exercising outside, I’d like to ask you a question.
What do you want?
Why do you go to the gym at all? Do you go to lose weight or get stronger, to be more healthy or feel more comfortable in your own skin? Why do we want any of these things?
I think we go to the gym out of a deep desire to achieve mastery of the body, invigorate the senses, and forge common bonds of community while participating in an experience of being truly alive.
I’m sorry, but a treadmill doesn’t do that for me. I’m willing to bet you can say the same.