Here’s What Happens When You Start Exercising Outside

Here’s What Happens When You Start Exercising Outside

Erin Quinlan
May 23, 2016
(Image credit: Jaclyn Johnson )

The sky is blue. The trees are green. And in a red-blooded burst of spring fever, you’re stepping off your indoor treadmill and into the light. Here are some hard-won truths to keep in mind as you venture into nature.

(Image credit: Bryan Meltz for Runner's World)

You need to prep (and maybe pack)

Understand: Spontaneity is the stuff of indoor exercise. I’ve been known to bust out a strength-training circuit between meetings, dressed in smart corporate-casual separates. I am totally in control of my body and my life. No special supplies required, bruh! In the elements, however, you may have to concede that you are a pale, nearsighted weakling beset with asthma and systemic pollen allergies. Like me, you may need an antihistamine cocktail, SPF infinity sunscreen, a damp wad of tissues, a rescue-inhaler dongle and some scratched prescription sunglasses just to stay alive out there. It’s a broad-spectrum pain in the butt (like camping, minus the marshmallows and beer). But it’s also great for exercise adherence. After going to such trouble, you’d probably feel pretty silly skipping your workout.

Straight routes ruin you

At home, it’s safe to exercise by feel. Simply move until you’re exhausted/crying, then stop and eat your recovery Cheetos. Out in the wild, though, tiredness can strike at inopportune times. On one early misadventure, I loped several miles out on a trail that led straight into a forest. Felt OK, actually! Until hawks began circling overhead, and I realized I had to get back somehow—a thought that nearly inspired a Blair Witch panic video on my phone. Until you know quantitatively how much your hamstrings can handle, consider taking a circular course that allows for shortcuts home.

Your patience will be tested

By motorists who hoot and holler at you as they speed past. By your useless weather app that failed to predict the flash flood soaking your socks. By runners who block the bicycle lane. By bicyclists who spook you from behind. Figure out what bugs you (apart from fitness in general), then do your best to avoid it. And remember that fresh air reduces stress—in my experience, more than enough to offset the occasional life-threatening nuisance.

You get stronger, faster

OK, that’s a cheery way of saying that outdoor workouts tend to be more strenuous than indoor versions of the same activity. Factors such as ascents and headwinds add strain; even downhill stretches (which aren’t easily simulated on gym equipment) work joints and muscles in unique ways. If your first few outings seem awful, it’s because they are. Don’t beat yourself up. You’ll acclimate in a couple of weeks—and be fitter for it.

You feel great, even if you're not sure why

The scientific community can’t quite agree on whether the so-called runner’s high is a genuine response to physical exertion or a psychedelic hallucination experienced by people on juice cleanses. Either way, there’s abundant evidence that the simple act of spending time outdoors can heighten optimism, enthusiasm and one's general sense of wellbeing. See? Maybe these workouts aren’t so terrible after all.

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