It’s not called the ‘great outdoors’ for nothing

What do you remember from your workout this morning? Was it that you upped the reps or cranked up the resistance on the bike? Maybe there was a great tune on MTV, an earworm that you’ve had in your head all day. Or was it the fact that the rowing machine is still out of action?

Me? I remember the curlew that was high above me. I remember the buffeting wind as I left the lee of the hillside and having to push hard against it. I remember the steel blue of the reservoir and the daffs, growing wild, at the foot of a tumbled dry-stone wall.

You might have guessed that I prefer to exercise outdoors. I run, sometimes I cycle, and I’m opinionated enough to be sure that my memories will last longer than those formed in an indoor gym. But, as they say, horses for courses. There will always be some people who fear they will dissolve if it rains, or who enjoy the convenience, warmth and coffee of a gym. And there’s no doubt that exercising indoors can build endurance, strength and aerobic capacity. 

I’m not without experience. I have tried gyms. I’ve waited for the cross-trainer and pedalled that static bike. I’ve used lots of the small weights – lots of times – and left the bigger ones for the bigger guys. But I’ve also paid the monthly subs and smelled the smells, and I know why it’s called a dreadmill. Every minute I’ve been indoors, I’ve been watching the clock, as if the reps and the metres were an ordeal to be endured, rather than a celebration of the joy of being alive. 

Our bodies are remarkable, and when we exercise we feel good because we’re doing exactly what we were designed to do. We are in tune with our physical selves – our natural selves and that’s why I feel outdoor exercise wins every time. Whatever we’ve constructed in the world, we are still part of nature. We weren’t designed to build muscles using a lat machine. We’re built for climbing hills, not for step machines.  

And perhaps even more importantly, we weren’t designed to breathe air that’s been warmed and recirculated through miles of ducts. Forget healthy – gyms can be a bit of a hazard with poor ventilation, artificial lighting, synthetic materials, anti-microbial cleaners, blaring TVs and sometimes dubious showering facilities. 

And yet more and more of us think the way to fitness is to join the gym. Just as we do in other aspects of our lives, we embrace a technological solution to a physical problem. We’re getting flabby or perhaps out of breath on the stairs. We know we need to move more, and our response is to shut ourselves in a room? 

We plug monitors into computers and wait for a programme to schedule warm ups, cool downs and intervals, and we watch TV while we’re listening out for the electronic beeps because otherwise, we would die of boredom. Now, instead of admitting that indoor exercise is as much fun as watching paint dry, gaming technology has been developed which lets us ‘race’ through a virtual jungle against an athlete in an Adelaide sports club.

Hey, folks. There are people a lot closer than Adelaide, and there are real jungles out there. 

There are hills and mountains, there are forests, moors, parks, riverbanks and towpaths. And they are all more incredible than any digital facsimile will ever be. Outdoor exercise doesn’t fit the strictures of a computer program. It’s spontaneous, an obstacle course as challenging as you want to make it. As you move, the terrain changes. You’ll use different muscles, test your balance and your strength as well as your pace. If you turn into a headwind – great – that’s extra resistance and more calories burnt. If it rains, so what? And on the rare occasions when conditions outside really are foul, you’ll build real resilience. Outdoors is cheap and convenient. It has no opening times and no closing times, no off-peak hours and no premium charges. 

Still not convinced? 

Imagine a new pair of running shoes comes on the market with a more responsive midsole that’s proven to slow the onset of fatigue and allow you to sustain a certain pace for x percent longer. Would you buy the shoes? 

You will if you’re passionate about improving your performance. Remember, that midsole is proven to have positive benefits. Here’s the thing. Outdoor exercise has been proven to be more beneficial than exercising indoors. 

Study after study has shown a significant difference. In 2008 a Scottish study found that jogging through a forest had a 50 percent greater positive effect on mental health than jogging in a gym. In 2011, a review by a team at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry which analysed existing studies concluded that there are benefits to mental and physical well-being from exercising in the natural environment. Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments “was associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression”. What’s more, those who exercised outdoors enjoyed it more and said they were more likely to repeat the activity. 

This isn’t news. 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates declared that “Nature is the Physician of disease” but somehow in our sanitised, modern lives we seem to have forgotten our animal nature. We’ve become too clever for our own good and used tricks, gadgets and machinery for exercise instead of our natural environments. We invent ever-smarter ways to avoid the stultifying boredom and shore up the motivation to keep at it, but all we really need to do is get outside and move.  

See you out there?

Kate Woodward