Are you a gym junkie, spending hour upon hour at a fitness center every week? I was, six to eight years ago. Back then, I was obsessed with strength training, and I went to the gym at least three times per week (usually more). I immersed myself in bodybuilding-type training. The exercise volume was high, and pretty much every set was done to failure, so hence, I typically had little energy left in the tank when I walked out of the weight room after a workout.
In the years that have passed since then, my understanding of health and fitness has evolved, and with it, my exercise routine. It’s not only my training program that has changed, but also the location of my workouts. This erstwhile gym rat now mostly trains outside, having realized the unique benefits of alfresco exercise.
The pros and cons of outdoor training
First, let me be clear: I don’t hate gyms. There are some obvious advantages to gym-based training as opposed to outdoor workouts.
First of all, you have access to a lot more equipment. In the park, you’ll be lucky to find a pull-up bar and dip station, whereas in a gym, you’ll find a wide range of exercise machines, BOSU platforms, balls, and free weights. Second, the quality of your workout is largely weather-independent, since you’re inside an (often air-conditioned) edifice. It doesn’t matter whether it’s raining or snowing or the sun is shining; the workout isn’t affected either way.
On the flip side, outdoor training does confer some important advantages over indoor training. First of all, you aren’t surrounded by people. You don’t have to wait ten minutes to use the popular equipment, and you won’t be bombarded by the noises and “fragrances” common to the gym milieu. For some, these stimuli are part of the attraction of gym training; however, to others, these things may seem more like irksome barriers to a satisfying workout.
Second, you don’t have to pay to train outside. Also, you can squeeze in your training sessions whenever you have the time: you don’t have to wait until the gym opens in the morning, or skip training sessions during the holidays because the fitness center is closed.
Last, but not least, certain positive health outcomes derive exclusively from outdoor activity. Exposure to green spaces confers significant health benefits, especially with regard to brain function and mental health (1, 2, 3). If you’ve ever trained in a park or similar type of green space, you’ve probably experienced many of these effects, such as increased mental clarity and improved mood. Of course, these benefits can be obtained inside as well; however, they tend to be more pronounced after an outdoor workout. Exposure to green spaces may also improve longevity by enhancing cardiovascular health (4).
Returning to nature
Another potential health benefit of training outside, rarely acknowledges in health and fitness circles, arises from our interaction with the ecosystem of a green space; a community substantially different from that within a gym.
We now know that the microbes inhabiting a building can exert a powerful impact on the health of the human beings who frequent it. While a “healthy” building can facilitate human health, a “sick” building that harbours an imbalanced microbiota can prove very hazardous. These effects are likely intensified in fitness centers, tanning salons, and other high-traffic facilities. In a gym, sweaty people are moving around, touching the equipment and sometimes each other, and thereby exchanging microbes of all persuasions – healthful and harmful. Often, poor ventilation, and the staff’s use of various antimicrobial cleaning products, can skew the balance towards more pathogenic microbiota. Recent research confirms that this is often the case in such facilities (5, 6).
If you harbor a resilient microbiota and have a strong immune system, these potentially harmful microbes are likely not going to do you much harm; however, if your immune system is compromised in some way, they certainly can be problematic. The immune system of the modern man is not in great shape, so there may be some room for concern here.
In terms of microbial exposure, an outdoor workout is probably superior to an indoor one. One of the leading researchers in the microbiome field, Dr. Graham Rook, has made the case in his research papers that many of the health benefits associated with spending time in nature can be attributed to exposure to microorganisms (3, 7).
In nature, you’ll find a whole ecosystem of living organisms. Plants, microbes, and animals live side-by-side, sometimes working together to attain mutual benefits, while other times competing for the same resources. When you go for a run in the forest or do push-ups in the park, you are obviously much closer to this natural world than what you would be inside a fitness center.
This may be the chief advantage of outdoor training over indoor exercise. Not so long ago – when measured on an evolutionary scale – we humans spent all of our time outside in nature. Needless to say, this is no longer the case. Today, most of us spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors. This is problematic for a number of reasons: We don’t get enough sun exposure, we don’t experience the cooling, relaxing effects brought on by nature, the quality of our sleep is compromised, and since we no longer walk barefoot, we’ve become disconnected from the soil and surface of the earth.
By going outside to exercise, rather than into a gym, you are putting yourself in an evolutionarily familiar environment. That is, if the workout is performed in a natural milieu. If you are running up and down the streets of Manhattan you obviously won’t experience the same health benefits that you would jogging in a forest or park.
I’m convinced that this is the key reason that outdoor training is so beneficial. Every time we adjust our environment in such as a way that it more closely resembles the ancestral natural milieu in which our primal ancestors lived, health benefits arise.
Before we wrap up, let’s briefly have a look at the more practical side of things. What kind of exercises can you actually do outside? The equipment is obviously more limited than at the gym, so you’ll need to be creative. That said, there’s actually a lot you can do, as long as you put your head to the task.
With regard to strength exercises, push-ups is a viable option. Other good exercises that can be performed outside include lunges, air squats, sit-ups, and planks. In some parks you can also find pull-up bars, dip stations, and other forms of equipment that can further enhance your workouts. Also, let’s not forget that although you are training outside, you don’t have to rely exclusively on your body weight as resistance. To spice up the workouts you can add additional resistance in the form of rocks, logs, branches, and other materials you’ll find around you.
In terms of sprinting, team sports, aerobic training, and swimming, the outdoor possibilities are even more enticing. Many sports are best performed outside, and when it comes to running, I think the majority of runners will say that the tracks at the park are superior to the treadmill.
My tip is to be spontaneous when you train outside. Don’t plan everything down to the tiniest details. Have an overarching plan, but adjust the training volume and intensity according to how you feel and perform, and don’t be afraid to mix things up as you go.
So, there’s not really much left to say except: get your shoes on and get out there. Nature is waiting.