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Outdoor workouts anyone can do

Spring is springing, which means it’s a wonderful time to go outside and get active. Here are some ideas to get you started.

You know what was great about being a kid? Recess. Every day — sometimes twice! — you would stop what you were doing, head outside, and run your little legs off just for the fun of it.

You know what’s great about being an adult? You can still treat yourself to recess. Sure, some people call it “exercise,” and many of us recoil at the very thought. But at the end of the day, whether you’re going for a walk or run, or engaging in some form of sporting activity with friends, you’re outside, taking in fresh air, and moving your body. See? Recess. (And if you’re working from home, you can even sneak in “recess” between Zoom calls.)

Perhaps you’re not convinced, and the fact that so many of us don’t get nearly enough regular, outdoor exercise, suggests that you’re not. That’s why we spoke with a personal trainer about different ways to get outside and get active this spring, from an outdoor class to hacking a swing set and even talking to your mom. All in the name of exercise. Er, we mean… recess.

Oh, and before we start, a reminder (as if you needed one) that it’s been a long 13 months. Chances are, you haven’t been out and about, getting as much day-to-day movement as your body likes to keep in shape. If that sounds familiar — or if you just haven’t done much of this outdoor exercise thing since your prime recess days — start slow. “The difference between exercise for beginners and experienced people isn’t about doing radically different activities,” says personal trainer Sarah Revenig from New York’s Soho Strength Lab. “It’s about intensity and duration — that’s what takes it from beginner to expert.”

With that being the case, “With any new exercise, introduce it slowly. Dabble a bit then slowly build up your tolerance and the volume. If you haven’t done any type of outdoor or indoor workout all winter, instead of going out for an hour of high-intensity training, try a 15- or 20-minute workout and see how it goes.” Here’s what she recommends.

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Walking

If walking can be classified as an Olympic sport, it can certainly be thought of as exercise for people of all fitness levels. “Everyone, whatever they do for work, spends exponentially more time sitting now — we’ve all just been inside so much,” says Revenig. “Taking a brisk walk has a ton of health benefits and studies have shown that brisk walking can help with lower back pain,” which is, of course, something more of us are experiencing thanks to all the sitting. “Walking can be for someone of any fitness level,” she adds. “It’s a good way to start out if you haven’t done anything all winter and it’s a nice way to supplement for people who like to go really hard with their other outdoor workouts.”

Hiking

Think of it as walking with a purpose (that purpose being enjoying nature while also getting fit). Although you should hike less briskly than you walk (because you want to stop and smell the flowers and avoid tripping on the undergrowth), the more challenging nature of a hike — hills, uneven terrain — means it helps strengthen your core and many of the muscles in your lower body. You’ll be burning calories, tightening muscles, and enjoying all that mother nature has to offer.

Classes

Just because you’re exercising in an outdoor space doesn’t mean you have to figure out out all the details (including motivation) on your own. Many gyms may still be closed and/ or unappealing thanks to Covid, but, as Revenig says, if you live in a city “there are outdoor classes all over the place, especially the parks. If there aren’t classes where you are, you can follow along on one of the fitness apps.” Experienced gym rats should be able to find the HIT (high-intensity training) classes they’ve been missing. And for beginners, Revenig suggests a “basic, bodyweight-based strength training workout class,” so you can develop good form. And once you have that and are ready to go it alone…

Strength training

“Stretching, lunging, squats, push-ups — all these things can be done outside,” says Revenig. When you need to add resistance, “a single kettlebell can do wonders,” she says. Also, when you’re strength training, you can make the park into your gym. “You can use a park bench for push-ups or step-ups, and a swing set for pull-ups,” she notes. While Revenig did not suggest that you use fallen tree branches for log carries, we’ll note that it worked for Rocky Balboa.

Sprinting

Obviously the park is good for running, but, surprisingly, so is a small garden if it has an even surface. “Sprinting is really beneficial, it builds fast twitch muscle and it can be a lot of fun. You can start doing it in a small space then eventually take that into a larger outdoor field area and let it rip,” says Revenig. “Speed isn’t just running forward as fast as you can. You can also retreat, move to the side and come back: you don’t need a lot of room to do change-of-direction drills or top velocity drills.” (If you played organized basketball or football growing up, this may sound familiar.)

Some very basic equipment

If you want to get or keep fit, there is no need to recreate the gym at home. “I think the jump rope is one of the most underrated pieces of equipment,” says Revenig. “For beginners it’s a really great way to build proper tissue tolerance in their lower legs and their feet in case they want to get into anything more advanced like plyometrics (also known as jump training). Building tissue tolerance is really important: it’s really easy to want to jump into something crazy like a HIT class, but if you’re not ready for that you’ll do more damage than good.” If you are ready, then jump rope is still useful: “A more intermediate or advanced athlete can just increase the duration and intensity,” says Revenig.

She also recommends medicine balls, “those big squishy balls you see in gyms. Everyone can throw a ball into the ground and it feels great.” This is called a “ball slam,” and it’s good for your physical health, while also providing a little stress relief. “Throwing a ball really hard at something, such as a wall or the ground, is really fun and there are ways of making that more complex and demanding on the body, like rotary stability exercises or single leg exercises for people who are more advanced,” she says. There are dozens of exercises you can do with a medicine ball, and few of them require much space. “If you’re buying a ball, most adults need one that’s 8 to 12 pounds, perhaps 6 to 8 for a very light female,” she says. “Don’t be fooled by the 20-pound ball — you can’t do anything with that.”

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Walking and talking

What about ways of getting outdoor activity which aren’t exactly exercise? Now that so many of us are working from home, can we expand “home” to include the park? How about taking your virtual meetings outside on the go? “I’ve suggested that to so many of my clients, but it’s just not feasible because often people need their computers,” says Revenig. (Also, Zooming while walking is an excellent way to hurt yourself or others.) “What I have found works is to set up a regular walk and talk with a friend or family member,” she says. It even works when the people you talk to aren’t physically close by. “I do a walk and talk with my mom. I’m in New York, she’s in Denver, so every Thursday at 9am I block off my calendar, call her on the phone and we both go outside to walk.” Beyond the fitness benefits of walking, a walk and talk is also a way to carve out some social time, during this socially challenging time.

Step challenges

There’s another, more direct way to use your phone to promote activity. Says Revenig: “You have a pedometer on your phone: you can get a small group of friends or colleagues together and do a step challenge — see who can get their 10,000 steps each day or whatever the goal is. Some people are very motivated by that — ‘Someone else sees what I do, I’ve only taken 600 steps, I’d better get out and start walking.’”

Quality not quantity

So what exercise would Revenig recommend for someone who is short on time and is at least somewhat fit? “Pick a lower body activity that’s knee-dominant — squat then lunge, or step up on a park bench,” she says. “Don’t forget the upper body; you can do pushups there, too.” Mainly, though, Revenig says you should “go for quality.” When you’re in the gym, you’re probably watching your form, or you have a trainer watching it for you. It’s harder to maintain that precision when you’re out on your own, but “you get no benefit from being sloppy,” she says. “Instead of doing 100 squats that look horrible,” and therefore aren’t working our muscles the right way, “go for three sets of 10 to 15 body weight squats that look good, where you’re in control, they feel good. Instead of trying to get in as many sets as possible, go for a few good ones of whatever you can manage.” Whether you do a HIIT workout, an outdoor workout at a fitness studio, or a run for some extra cardio, there are many ways to get a great workout outside.  Remember, the good weather has just started: We have time to get fit the right way. Recess awaits.

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