As far as I’m concerned, treadmills are one of the great inventions of the 20th century. They allowed me to run safely through 20 snowy, icy winters in New England and New York City; to push myself toward five-minute miles; and to operate on automatic mode many a morning.
When I started running outdoors in Colorado, however, I felt a profound new freedom. The hilly terrain challenged my body in different ways, and I began discovering new areas of my city. I’d wake to see the indigo sky, the slivered moon, and the sparkling stars recede as the sun illuminated the horizon. Sure, it was challenging to adjust, but my favorite indoor workout is now enhanced by my favorite outdoor activity — trail running.
Turning treadmill workouts into trail runs is just one of the many swaps that we can make to boost our fitness while connecting with the great outdoors. Health clubs offer great resources, with top trainers and technology to help guide us toward our goals. Complementing our indoor routines with outdoor activities in Mother Nature can be a boon to our health and fitness.
Whether you’re taking to the trails of Tennessee, the surf of California, the lakes of Louisiana, or the courts of the Carolinas, clear skies, fresh air, and varied elements and terrain can deliver new challenges — and that novelty is both mental and physical.
“When I get to be outside, it’s an incredible sense of freedom and movement,” says Emily Schaldach, a professional mountain-bike racer based in Boulder, Colo. “It’s creative, empowering, and exciting to be outdoors, moving on your own accord and experiencing the wind in your hair, the sunshine — or whatever the weather is. It’s also the most fun I can have with my friends.”
Here, Schaldach and other athletes describe the benefits of specific outdoor activities and offer beginner tips, adventure ratings, and more, so you’ll soon be well on your way to wellness in the great wide open, too.
Ryan Krol, NASM, a Life Time personal trainer, running coach, and competitive trail runner, devised this handy scale to help you decide if your new outdoor pursuit is within your wheelhouse. It takes into account not only the outdoor elements and risk involved but also the learning curve.
- 1: Think going outside to fetch the newspaper or take out the trash.
- 2: “Yes, now I’m starting to get moving.”
- 3: Your heart is beginning to really pump.
- 4: You’re challenged, and navigating new and sometimes risky terrain.
- 5: “Hmm, the gym doesn’t sound so bad right now . . .”
- 6: Chances are you’re entering into uncharted territory; stay well equipped.
- 7: The adrenaline is soaring; wear a helmet and be prepared for obstacles.
- 8: “When I get through this, I can’t wait to Instagram it. People will be shocked!”
- 9: Highly experienced guides or partners and safety-tested gear are a must.
- 10: Yikes! Think skydiving or skiing a World Cup downhill course.
If You Like Swimming Laps, Try Snorkeling
Why? “Snorkeling offers a great alternative to lap swimming,” says Dan Bender, an instructor with East Coast Divers in Massachusetts. “Though neither sport is limited to a lap pool or the open water, snorkeling gives you the possibility of keeping your eyes underwater and observing aquatic life while you continue training.”
While indoor pools offer a safe, controlled environment for swimming, they can also be popular — and packed — places. Snorkeling in the ocean or a lake can open up a watery new world, with space to swim more freely.
Not to mention marine life to observe. You can work out while viewing everything from crawfish and sunfish in northern waters to coral and clownfish in southern climates.
Snorkeling with fins is also more demanding than it looks, because proper “finning” technique requires pointing your toes and driving power from your hips while keeping your arms at your sides. This flutter-kick style streamlines your body to propel you smoothly through the water and forces you to work your core muscles.
Start by: visiting a local dive shop to get properly fitted for a mask. “Everyone’s face is different and there are enough options out there to warrant a careful review,” says Bender.
In the pool, practice “mask clearing” (to remove excess water) and “snorkel popping” (to purge excess carbon dioxide that can interfere with a workout). Then you’re ready to head out to open water.
Adventure rating: 4
Balance it out: Stretch out on the beach to dry off and catch up on your reading.
If You Like Indoor Cycling Classes, Try Mountain Biking
Why? All those imaginary hills you’ve been climbing become real when you swap a stationary cycle for a mountain bike. And with all due respect to the classes we’ve come to love, mountain biking is literally a breath of fresh air compared with a sweaty studio.
As Schaldach explains, it’s also highly social, unlike the typical indoor cycling class, where gabbing is discouraged. “Mountain biking is a really awesome way to experience something fun and freeing together,” she says. “You’re more naturally inclined to be chatting with your fellow participants instead of just being in your own zone.”
The quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings that you’ve developed in cycling class carry over into mountain biking, which also works your core and calves. Scanning the trail for obstacles develops reactive skills, and maneuvering over them boosts agility.
Start by: buddying up with an experienced cyclist, who can help ensure you’re tackling the right terrain for your level. “It can be intimidating,” admits Schaldach, “so it’s a lot nicer if you can go with someone who’s familiar with the area.”
A bike shop can fit you with the right wheels and shoes. Other must-haves for the outdoor swap include a helmet, gloves, water bottle, and small repair kit.
And remember to look where you want to go, not just at the roots and rocks you want to avoid.
Adventure rating: 6 to 9, depending on trail difficulty and location
If You Like Yoga, Try Stand-Up Paddleboarding
Why? Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is an excellent way to apply some of the yoga principles you practice on the mat to an outdoor activity, says Roxanne Scully, a SUP and yoga instructor based in Burlington, Vt.
“Principles like balancing the body, working on alignment, and being in the present moment — enjoying sensations as they arise — are all part of the SUP experience,” she explains. “The repetitive movements of placing the paddle in the water and gliding through the landscape are very soothing and meditative, similar to linking breaths to movements in yoga practice.”
Like many yoga poses, SUP works the core muscles, and it requires minimal equipment — just a board and a paddle.
Water, however, adds an entirely new element to the fundamentals of yoga. When you’re stand-up paddleboarding, it’s as if you’re walking on water, and the feeling can tap into something deeply spiritual for even the most devout yogi.
“Some people report experiencing euphoria after being out there in the vastness of nature,” says Scully, “whether paddling long distances or just floating around with no destination at all.”
Balancing on water challenges the abdominal muscles more than yoga does, since the smaller muscles of the glutes, hamstrings, and calves fire to maintain stability. Your shoulders, back, and triceps work in unison to maneuver the board.
Start by: choosing a wider and longer board, which is easier to balance than many of its sleeker, more compact counterparts. Borrow or rent at first, and choose a body of water with little or no wind and waves. (Ocean SUP is for more experienced paddlers.)
Center yourself on your knees on the board and do several strokes until you feel comfortable enough to stand up and glide off into the sunset.
Adventure rating: 4
Balance it out: Jog lightly along the shoreline to loosen up your legs.
If You Like Indoor Rowing, Try Kayaking
Why? “Like indoor rowing, recreational kayaking is a low-impact activity. It can improve aerobic fitness, build strength, and increase flexibility,” says Kelsey Bracewell, of the American Canoe Association.
But the side-to-side motion of paddling a kayak works the core in a way the rowing machine can’t, and you’ll learn to breathe more efficiently. Plus, instead of staring at a screen, you’ll experience awe-inspiring sights and sounds.
Natural conversations with fellow paddlers bubble up when you’re out on the water and working up an appetite for a post-paddle picnic at the takeout.
“Kayaking,” notes Bracewell, “offers the benefits of observing nature, being away from distracting technology and noise, getting exercise, and breathing fresh air.”
Start by: finding a small, calm body of water, and, if possible, a knowledgeable friend who can accompany you on your first outings. Even better, head to a local watersports shop where trained experts will set you up with all the rental gear you need, plus maps or a guide to help navigate your excursion.
Adventure rating: 6
Balance it out: Take time before and after paddling to stretch your whole body, because the new and repetitive movements can cause stiffness, particularly in the hips and shoulders. And don’t forget to hydrate: It’s easy to forget about drinking water when you’re out on the water
If You Like Strength Training, Try Rock Climbing
Why? “Well, first of all, because it’s fun — we are primates, after all,” says Chris Noble, author of Why We Climb. “But as the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his seminal book Flow, we humans love the feeling of losing ourselves in challenging activities that require the focus of our entire mental and physical being. In fact, some would say this leads to our highest human flourishing.”
We don’t get that same feeling when we squat, deadlift, lunge, or curl dumbbells. We do, however, discover that the strength we’ve built through lifting weights can help lift us to the top of cliffs, too. The dedication it takes to squeeze out the last few reps translates well into reaching for a seemingly out-of-reach hold.
And if you’ve trusted a partner to spot your bench press, you understand what it takes to trust a climbing partner on belay, or holding your rope. The boost we get from going outdoors, meanwhile, stays with us — at home, in the office, or on the playing field.
“If you stick with it and do it regularly, climbing makes you super fit,” adds Noble. For most people, climbing well requires them to change their entire relationship toward fitness and health — including nutrition, training, and discipline.
Start by: finding an experienced guide, who can literally show you the ropes. The outdoor company REI offers beginner-friendly climbing courses at stores across the country, while the American Mountain Guides Association publishes a list of certified instructors who can tailor a day trip to your needs. Many recreation centers and health clubs, including Life Time, also feature climbing walls and guides.
Adventure rating: 9
Balance it out: Give yourself a massage with a foam roller.
If You Like the Stairclimber, Try Hiking
Why? Sure, this fitness machine is a tried-and-true way to raise your heart rate and work your lower body, but climbing real hills will expand your lung capacity and your horizons.
“You’re challenging your balance and moving your body when you’re ascending and descending on a trail,” says the American Hiking Society’s Wesley Trimble. A communication manager and visual artist, Trimble documents his own adventures as a hiker with cerebral palsy, including his journey from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. “Walking in nature can also reduce depression and improve memory.”
And unlike the stairclimber, natural hills offer descents. After the exhilaration of reaching a summit or turnaround point, hikers head downhill, improving their agility while challenging the muscles in their feet, ankles, calves, and quads.
Start by: rummaging through your closet. “If you have a decent pair of sneakers and a backpack, you’re pretty much good to go,” says Trimble. “Hiking is great partly because it has a much lower barrier to entry than other sports. Start local and start slow.”
Many people envision hiking in national parks or forests, but Trimble notes that local trails are a good way to build up mileage before a longer expedition.
Once you’re ready for extended trips, find a hiking partner for the backcountry, and be sure to pack the National Park Service’s well-established 10 Essentials: navigation gear, such as a compass, map, and GPS; sun protection; clothing for varied weather; headlamp; first-aid kit; matches or a lighter for starting a fire; repair kit with a knife or multitool; a tent or a light emergency bivy; extra food; and plenty of water.
Adventure rating: 3 to 7, depending on trail length, difficulty, and location
Balance it out: Take a warm bath with Epsom salts.
This originally appeared as “Inside Out” in the June 2020 print issue of Experience Life.