Written by Eric Morris Jr
We all know the benefits of exercise. Regular exercise keeps the blood and oxygen circulating, increases metabolism, helps improve body composition, elevates mood, increases cognitive function, improves sleep, helps burn fat and increases energy levels and the list goes on. Also keep in mind that exercise doesn’t always have to be in a gym. Remember the legendary film Rocky IV? Ivan Drago vs Rocky Balboa. Rocky trekked in snow, pulled logs and chased chickens. Drago trained in a world class gym, ran on a treadmill and was hooked up to sophisticated equipment and I’ll tell you, Drago in no wise had the upper hand. Being forged by the earth, tested by nature and against all odds, Rocky won. So go ahead, hike or rock climb. Chase a rabbit, squirrel or chipmunk. I don't care how much you bench press, If you catch a bunny or a squirrel...You're pretty awesome. Just don’t hurt them and try not to get bitten.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a gym. It absolutely has its place, especially when you can’t go outside. Plus, you do need to be exercising in some fashion so if that’s how you’re starting, the way you’re keeping a fitness routine or getting help from a personal trainer, then keep going and don’t stop. You’re on the right track. The most important thing is not to be sedentary. However, there are benefits that are compounded when you take your body and your workout outside.
A body resilient to injury, resistant to sickness and disease. A level of fitness not attainable with indoor stagnant air and no sunshine. To be optimally fit we need different terrain, grass, dirt, trees, rocks and natural stimuli that only nature can provide. Your body is developed differently when moving across uneven ground, lifting and moving things imperfect in shape, and handling odd objects. The microscopic oscillations that occur in the deeper strands of the muscles achieve a higher degree of balance and coordination that can’t be achieved through just linear, even sided resistance or a smooth ground surface. A body tried and tested by Mother Nature and forged by the elements. A body granted and grounded by the earth. This develops not only the body but the mind and the spirit as well. We came from earth and are earth. This is the benefit of optimizing body through outdoor exercise.
Stronger Immune System
Being out in nature isn’t dirty. Surprisingly, it combats pathogens and harmful microbes. Ben Page founder of Shinrin Yoku LA explains "Trees shower (or bathe) themselves in an antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial compound called phytoncides. This is how trees combat disease. When humans inhale these phytoncides, it triggers the human body to produce a specialized white blood cell called NK cells, or Natural Killer cells." These NK cells then attack cancerous and tumorous growths in the body, improving immune strength.” (1). So get outside and get the benefits of improved immunity.
Less Likely To Get Injured
Gradually increase your intensity level on outdoor terrain being mindful of obstacles. You’ll flex your ankles more and end up overall with stronger more resilient muscles (1). Your muscles and coordination will develop better and you'll be able to navigate any terrain better. This is something called proprioception which is simply your awareness of the position and movement of your body without having to look at the limb or body part involved in the movement. Ever hear of your dog or other animals being "sure footed"? This is what’s developed when you expose yourself to varying terrain in nature. What’s even better is letting your feet feel as much of the ground as possible while still being protected. It’s worth mentioning some functional minimalist footwear that allows your foot to respond to the feedback it’s receiving from the terrain. Companies like Vivobarefoot and Earth Runners are great for allowing this type of sensory feedback.
Vitamin D & Sunlight Exposure
This also boosts immune system, reduces stress and helps increase bone density helping prevent breaks and fractures (2, 3). Just practice smart exposure prioritizing early sunlight or wearing healthful non-toxic protection if out for extended periods or during hotter parts of the day. We need vitamin D to properly use and absorb calcium, proper immune system function and help maintain healthy energy levels. Low levels are also linked to a greater chance of being obese. Only about 10% of vitamin D comes from food sources (4) such as sun exposed mushrooms, quality dairy products and oily fish (preferably all your food sources being organic, grass fed and wild caught). The remaining amount we need is produced by the body itself as long as we have adequate sunlight exposure. So be like Superman and harness the power of the sun.
Makes You Happier
The outdoors can increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to well-being and happiness (3). Science has shown that getting out in the fresh air, sunshine and nature does wonders for elevating mood and combating depression. Along with the many benefits aforementioned with getting vitamin D when we get sunshine, mental health and fighting depression is one big way being outdoors can make you happier. Vitamin D is actually a prohormone, something our body uses to make a hormone. Too little can be linked to mental illnesses, mood disorders and depression (4). This prohormone also helps the body produce a sense of well-being and feel good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. Just being out in nature and seeing all the sights and wonders and appreciating the scenery that just isn’t present in a gym setting has shown to contribute to a sense of happiness (1). A 2015 study conducted by Stanford University found that students who walked through a campus park for an hour felt less anxiety than those who didn’t (1).
Burn More Calories
Being exposed to ever changing terrain, wind resistance and obstacles in the surrounding environment will increase the amount of calories you burn. Plus, you'll get more energy through sunlight and fresh air that will enable you to go harder, faster for longer. You'll get exposed to stressors that you otherwise wouldn’t in an indoor atmosphere which provides a greater hormetic effect. You’ll end up better conditioned from being tried in all the varying degrees and elements of nature rather than just working out in a linear fashion that most have grown accustomed to in a gym.
Earthing and Grounding
Negative ions balance out and discharge dirty electricity from wifi signals, cell phones, computers and other electronic devices that degrade our cells and disrupt sleep. Outdoor exercise is a modern day must for desk and indoor workers. Ironically, the more time you spend inside connected, the more it's imperative you spend outside disconnected. Earth Runners sandals mentioned earlier also have a built in copper plug in the soles of their sandals to allow for negative ion flow for “earthing” or “grounding” similar to walking barefoot in grass, on the beach or dirt which has numerous healing benefits. Even turn other minimalist footwear into grounding shoes with their Earthing Shoe DIY kit. You might also want to check out this amazing podcast with Ben Greenfield interviewing Clint Ober on the effects of earthing and grounding. After this, I promise you will go unshod every chance you get.
It’s Free, Interesting And The Only Thing You Need
No gym membership and no fancy equipment to buy. Just you, the outdoors and your desire to explore your surroundings. Plus you can discover new and exciting wildlife and previously unexplored areas. You’ll come across bunnies, lizards, squirrels, birds, snakes (yikes!). Just be careful. Nature is beautiful but can also be dangerous. Sometimes it may be best to admire without disturbing unless you know what you’re doing.
See, with the outdoors and nature all around you, really don’t need a gym to exercise or accomplish your health and fitness goals. They’re great, fun and can offer nice amenities, but you don’t need one to get fit or get healthier. What you do need is fresh air, sunlight and to be grounded if you want to thrive and not just live. If you start keeping this in mind you can eliminate a big hurdle that causes a number of people to skip exercise altogether. The infamous “I don’t have time to go to the gym!” excuse. You very well may not, but having time to go to the gym and having time to exercise are two very different things. The gym is anywhere you are. Your house, your office, any secluded or open space and of course, the great outdoors, are yours for the fitness taking.
Ways to Workout Outside
Find a park, grassy field or desert
I personally love a secluded barren desert with some boulders to throw around. Finding objects difficult to handle with uneven loads challenges the body in a completely different way. This is truly functional training. Always training in a linear, even loaded fashion is fine but doesn’t pose the same real world scenarios that provide a better stimulus and greater balance and core strengthening that offset loading affords, which you’ll inevitably be exposed to if you’re lifting with what you find in your natural environment. This can definitely be done in a gym, but outside you won’t even have to think about training this way. Using what you find around you, it'll just happen and you’ll get all the other benefits of being outdoors. A lot of parks have a dedicated exercise area too with monkey bars, parallel bars, ladders, ropes, pull up bars and sit up stations. And if not, a park still has what you need to get a good workout. A grass field, a bench, a trail, or just simply space (and sometimes you don’t need a whole lot of space either). Go ahead, jump around, play and exercise.
Plyometrics, Isometrics, Calisthenics & The Environment
Plyometrics, where you perform dynamic explosive movements to develop your speed and power. Sometimes with a little less intensity if you’re just starting out or just looking to tone up. These are fantastic for an outdoor workout as you’ll be breathing hard and the invigorating, therapeutic benefit of fresh air gives you better oxygenation and aerobic capacity (unless you’re around copious amounts of smog). Isometrics where you hold a position without moving, press against a wall, tree or other fixed object or yourself (glute squeezes anyone?) are great for outdoor or indoor exercise. These can be done anywhere you find even the smallest space. Valuable when you don't have time or space for anything else. You can even do isometric exercises undetected in the presence of other people. Start isometrically pushing or pulling against any fixed object you can securely grab onto and push or pull in a pulsing fashion. You can push your legs or thighs against fixed objects as well or even against your own arms. Calf raises are simple enough to be done standing or sitting wherever you are. Do them single leg without raising your whole body. These techniques can allow you to get a workout in and no one will ever know. These are all things that can be done outside or inside to stay stoned and strong all the time. You don’t always need to do an intense, brutal workout to stay fit. In fact, too much or too many extremely intense workouts done too often can actually work against you by overtraining and adrenal fatigue (which can be caused by too much exercise or other stressors such as familial, financial or work). Calisthenics is another great body weight workout option, which in my opinion, is actually best done outdoors. This type of exercise involves a variety of exercises and movements that target large muscle groups and multiple muscles at the same time and can greatly increase your level of fitness in a short amount of time. A fantastic way to get in your cardio and resistance training simultaneously. Find a set of bars at the park or even use tree branches and get to work.
Take A Walk
Walking is one of the most underrated forms of exercise there is. You can drastically improve body composition by simply walking and a nutritious, whole food diet. For many individuals, due to certain conditions, this may be the best or only option for exercise and maintaining movement of the body. This also is a great way for anyone to get started exercising. With many conditions this is a great way to speed up healing and keep the blood circulating. Of course, do anything according to your ability and specific circumstance, but walking and incorporating a few extra steps in your day can do wonders for your overall health. Walk to the grocery store with a backpack and walk back, park farther away (especially if you’re going to the gym!), walk to the farther restroom (if you can hold it), walk to the farther checkout stand, take the stairs instead of the elevator, clean up a spill instead of calling someone else and get the benefit of walking and moving as you gather the supplies and clean up the mess. Walking and just taking a few extra steps in any action you take or in your daily travels will yield great benefits in the long run...or walk.
No matter what your goals or reasons for exercise are, just remember to move. Bruce Lee said “Be water, my friend” to adapt to your environment. This also means be like a stream, moving water. Keep flowing and moving. Adjust to your surroundings and find a way to move. Stagnation in a pond breeds disease. It's flowing water that's pure. So goes for the body.
The rocks, the dirt and the trees are your playground. The terrain and the elements are your trainer. Your creativity and desire is your program. Your body is your equipment.
The world is your gym.