Are you a gym junkie, spending hour upon hour at a fitness center every week? I was, five to seven years ago. Back then, outdoor exercise was the last thing on my mind, and I was obsessed with strength training – hitting the gym at least three times per week (usually more). I immersed myself in bodybuilding-type training: a high-volume, reps-to-failure lifting scheme. Hence, I typically had little energy left in the tank when I finished my workout.

Since then, my understanding of health and fitness has evolved, and with it my exercise routine – both my training program and the location of my workouts. This former 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. I do still have a gym membership, which I use quite frequently. There are some obvious advantages to gym-based training as opposed to outdoor workouts.

First of all, gyms afford access to a lot more equipment. In the average park, you’ll be lucky to find a pull-up bar and dip station; in a gym, you’ll find a wide range of exercise machines, BOSU platforms, balls, and free weights. Second, the weather has zero effect on the quality of your workout, since you’re inside an (often air-conditioned) edifice.

Alternatively, outdoor training does confer some important advantages over indoor training. You normally don’t have to navigate a crowd. 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, they may be irksome barriers to a satisfying workout.  

Additionally, you don’t have to pay to train outside—or adhere to a set schedule based upon a gym’s open hours.

Last, but not certainly not least, various 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. 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.

Returning to Nature

Another potential health benefit of training outside, rarely acknowledged 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 harbors pathogenic bacteria 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 milling about, 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 toward more pathogenic microbiota. There is research confirming that this is often the case in such facilities.

If you maintain resilient microbiota and a strong immune system, you won’t likely be fazed by these potentially harmful microbes; however, they certainly can be problematic for immunocompromised people. As the latter represents a growing percentage of the population, there may be some room for concern here.

Exposure to outdoor microbes, however, can be highly beneficial. One of the leading researchers in the microbiome field, Dr. Graham Rook, contends that many of the health benefits associated with spending time in nature can be attributed to such contact. When you go for a run in the forest or do push-ups in the park, you encounter many more friendly flora than you’d find inside a fitness center.

This may be the chief advantage of outdoor training over indoor exercise. Where we once lived almost exclusively outdoors, most of us now spend 90+ percent of our time indoors. This is problematic for our physiology in myriad ways.

By exercising outside, you are placing yourself in an evolutionarily familiar environment—if the workout is performed in a natural milieu. If you are running up and down the streets of Manhattan, you won’t experience the same health benefits that you would jogging in a forest or park. When we modify our environment to more closely resemble the “wilder” settings in which our primal ancestors lived, our health improves.

Practical Applications

Let’s briefly have a look at some practical recommendations for outdoor training. What kinds of exercises can you actually do outside? The equipment is obviously more limited than at the gym, so you’ll need to be creative. But there’s actually a lot you can do if you’re resourceful.

With regard to strength exercises, push-ups are a viable option. Other good outdoor exercises can include lunges, air squats, sit-ups, and planks. The pull-up bars, dip stations, and other forms of equipment in some parks can further enhance your workouts. Remember, also, that bodyweight exercises aren’t your only option. You can add additional resistance in the form of rocks, logs, branches, and other material 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 the vast majority of runners prefer tracks at a park to the treadmill.

My best advice 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 your current mood, energy, performance, and available “equipment”; don’t be afraid to tinker with your workout as you go.

So, get your shoes on (or maybe take them off!) and go play! Nature is waiting.

References

1    K. M. Beyer, A. Kaltenbach, A. Szabo, S. Bogar, F. J. Nieto, and K. M. Malecki, ‘Exposure to Neighborhood Green Space and Mental Health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin’, Int J Environ Res Public Health, 11 (2014), 3453-72.

2    Eirik Garnas, The Indoor Microbiome and Toxic Mold: Is Your House Making You Sick?

3    M. Gascon, M. Triguero-Mas, D. Martinez, P. Dadvand, D. Rojas-Rueda, A. Plasencia, and M. J. Nieuwenhuijsen, ‘Residential Green Spaces and Mortality: A Systematic Review’, Environ Int, 86 (2016), 60-7.

4    A. C. Logan, M. A. Katzman, and V. Balanza-Martinez, ‘Natural Environments, Ancestral Diets, and Microbial Ecology: Is There a Modern “Paleo-Deficit Disorder”? Part I’, J Physiol Anthropol, 34 (2015), 1.

5    N. Mukherjee, S. E. Dowd, A. Wise, S. Kedia, V. Vohra, and P. Banerjee, ‘Diversity of Bacterial Communities of Fitness Center Surfaces in a U.S. Metropolitan Area’, Int J Environ Res Public Health, 11 (2014), 12544-61.

6    G. A. Rook, ’99th Dahlem Conference on Infection, Inflammation and Chronic Inflammatory Disorders: Darwinian Medicine and the ‘Hygiene’ or ‘Old Friends’ Hypothesis’, Clin Exp Immunol, 160 (2010), 70-9.

7    ———, ‘Regulation of the Immune System by Biodiversity from the Natural Environment: An Ecosystem Service Essential to Health’, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 110 (2013), 18360-7.

8    G. A. Rook, and L. R. Brunet, ‘Microbes, Immunoregulation, and the Gut’, Gut, 54 (2005), 317-20.

9    B. Ruiz-Nunez, L. Pruimboom, D. A. Dijck-Brouwer, and F. A. Muskiet, ‘Lifestyle and Nutritional Imbalances Associated with Western Diseases: Causes and Consequences of Chronic Systemic Low-Grade Inflammation in an Evolutionary Context’, J Nutr Biochem, 24 (2013), 1183-201.

10    J. E. Russak, and D. S. Rigel, ‘Tanning Bed Hygiene: Microbes Found on Tanning Beds Present a Potential Health Risk’, J Am Acad Dermatol, 62 (2010), 155-7.