Reboot your body and free your mind by trading indoor workouts for outdoor fitness activities this spring, says Mary Comber…
Glowing health, deeper sleep, happier mood, better immunity …if you could bottle the benefits of spending time in nature, you’d have a best-selling drug. Make your outdoor time active and the benefits multiply. Exercising al fresco is proven to give you a fitter, stronger body, amazing agility, resilient mindset and heaps of confidence. So it’s no surprise that biophilia exercise – taking your workouts and fitness activities outdoors and into nature – is one of 2023’s hottest wellness trends.
The rise of outdoor fitness
The new thirst for outdoor activity, sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, is gaining pace as more exercisers discover the incredible effects of this ‘nature pill’. According to a study by GO Outdoors and mental health charity Mind, a quarter of Brits recently ditched the gym in favour of exercising outdoors.
Google searches for ‘outdoor fitness classes’ have sky-rocketed, prompting gyms to introduce body-boosting outdoor sessions, while fitness app, Strava, is reporting a huge rise in biking, hiking and rowing. Also on the increase are activities that immerse you in nature – think rock climbing, diving and wild swimming. Bored of your regular workouts? Read on for some body-boosting alternatives you’ll love!
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1. Join Our Parks’ free outdoor fitness classes
Feeling unsure about exercising outdoors? Join in Our Parks’ fun, inclusive workout classes and make new friends while you find your fitness mojo. Held weekly in parks across London and other UK cities, sessions range from boxfit and HIIT, to yoga and Pilates. Best of all, they’re free! ‘More than 90 per cent of parkers are female,’ says founder, Born Barikor.
‘Many use the classes as a stepping stone back to fitness – they equip you with the confidence and skills to exercise outdoors. Some parkers go from being inactive to running marathons.’ It’s the friendly atmosphere that gets many parkers hooked. ‘It’s the perfect way to get to know your community, says Barikor. ‘We see friendships form, and we’ve even had marriages!’
Fancy teaching outdoor classes? Sign up for Our Parks’ Coach Parkers course (Level-2 coaching qualification).
Find your local class at ourparks.org.uk
2. Try racquet sports
It’s official – racquet sports, such as tennis, are the best way to keep your brain and body young, reveals research from America’s National Cancer Institute. And spring’s the perfect time to get match ready. ‘Tennis provides a great cardio workout, but also improves strength, speed, agility and co-ordination,’ explains Laura Bewick of the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA). ‘It offers a huge mental and wellbeing boost, releasing endorphins through the intense workout, plus you’re socialising while doing it. Overcoming the physical and mental challenges of the game can help increase your capacity to deal with day-to-day stress.’
What do the Kardashians, George Clooney and Emma Watson have in common? They’re all fans of fun, trending racquet sport Pickleball. Find a club at pickleballengland.org
TRY IT: Get ready to serve, rally and score by summer! The LTA’s TennisXpress course is a sociable, six-week coaching programme. Learn from scratch or brush up your skills.
For a local course (£70), visit lta.org.uk
3. Join an outdoor rowing club
Love the indoor rowing machine? Head to the river and row for real! According to Strava’s Year in Sport review, women’s rowing increased by a massive 40 per cent in 2022.
Here’s why. ‘Rowing activates all the major muscle groups, increasing strength, endurance and mobility while being low impact,’ says Team GB rower and fitness coach Rory Gibbs. ‘Training on the water is exciting, refreshing and a great way to improve your fitness while forgetting about stress as you focus on your surroundings and technique.’ Rowing in a crew is incredibly sociable and it’s never too late to learn. ‘If you want to row for health and fitness, you can pick it up in your 70s and beyond!’ says Gibbs.
Book a six-week British Rowing Learn to Row course (£60) at britishrowing.org
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4. Sign up to an outdoor fitness challenge
There’s nothing like a fitness fundraiser to inspire you into action and challenge new muscles. Walk a marathon, tackle an obstacle race, climb a mountain… there’s a wealth of adventures waiting for you in 2023.
Best fitness challenges to try in 2023
- Mind’s 100 Miles in March – Walk, jog or run 100 miles in a month to support people with mental health problems.
- Charity Challenge Yorkshire 3 Peaks at Night – Take on this challenge with a twist on April 29 as you aim to reach the final peak for sunrise.
- CRUK Race for Life Pretty Muddy – Enlist your girlfriends for a mud-splattered, non-competitive 5K/10K obstacle race and raise funds for cancer research, from May onwards.
5. Do an open-water swimming course
Bored of swimming laps? Escape the pool and discover the body benefits of open-water swimming. ‘Swimming is a great full-body workout, especially in open water where you don’t have a lane or wall to hold for a rest,’ says champion open-water swimmer Keri-Anne Payne, founder of Triscape swim retreats. ‘You have to learn to deal with your breath, the elements and, if you’re swimming in the sea, you need core awareness to handle the waves.’
TRY IT: Become a strong, safe swimmer with an open-water skills course, such as Triscape’s Cold Water Introduction (£30). ‘My coaching sessions make learning easy and sociable, and help women feel confident with whatever challenge they’re taking on, whether a 10K swim or simply putting their face in the water,’ says Payne.
To find an open-water coach, visit straightlineswimming.com.
6. Try outdoor climbing
If you’ve tried indoor climbing or bouldering, you’ll know what an incredible workout it is. This cool, fast-growing women’s sport sculpts and strengthens the body from head to toe. Climbing gets your heart pumping (not just due to the height!) while challenging your core and brain as you balance and stretch your way to the top. Scale mountains and the rewards soar along with your spirits. ‘Climbing is a beautiful combination of the benefits of green space, exercise and an activity that pulls us into the moment,’ says climbing coach Katherine Schirrmacher.
TRY IT: Sample outdoor climbing with the British Mountaineering Council Women’s Ready to Rock course (£60). This fun one-day session covers the key skills and equipment you need to start.
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7. Go freediving
Here’s a novel alternative to meditation classes. Discover a beautiful underwater world and calmer mind with a PADI Freediver course. It might look like an adrenaline sport, but freediving (diving while holding your breath) is a form of underwater meditation, all about calm, serenity and connecting with the ocean.
‘Freediving gives me a moment of peace as I focus on my breathing and relaxation,’ says instructor Victoria Hotchkin (stellardivers.co.uk). Once you’ve learnt to relax your body with your breath, and mastered breath-hold and safety techniques in the pool, it’s into open water for free immersion and 10m freedives. As you progress, research shows you’ll lower stress, improve lung function and boost confidence, strength and stamina.
TRY IT: Find a local PADI Freediver course, £50-£350, at padi.com
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8. Go speed hiking
Turn walks into a thrilling workout with the latest outdoor activity, speed hiking. Performed at a pace somewhere between a brisk walk and run, this fast-growing sport is all about covering long distances in the shortest possible time, as you speed and scramble your way over varied terrain. Also known as fastpacking, speed hiking torches calories and builds endurance while being kind on your joints.
‘The main fitness benefit is the cardio and full-body workout you get,’ explains Olympian race walker and keen speed hiker, Tom Bosworth. ‘Your body is constantly working to stay stable, meaning with every step, even the smaller muscles such as those around your hips and ankles are fighting to maintain your balance while your core is being engaged.’ Plus, there’s the mental boost. ‘Just 90 minutes of walking in nature is proven to lower your risk of depression,’ says Bosworth. ‘Besides, you can’t get an amazing view of the Lake District from the treadmill, can you?’
TRY IT: Try speed hiking with Bosworth’s top tips:
- Know your route inside out so you can manage your pacing and avoid getting lost.
- The right footwear is key to increasing your pace. I recommend Merrell’s MQM 3 GTX (see below) they’re lightweight and waterproof with a climbing zone on the sole for scrambling.
- Use your arms to power you, almost like pistons.
- Choose a comfortable stride – over stretching can cause injury.
- Keep your eyes on the trail ahead so you can adjust your foot placement, body position or speed to navigate the path efficiently.
- Take advantage of the downhill – it’s Mother Nature’s boost!
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9. Trade a treadmill for the trails
Want to ramp up your running workout? Hotfoot it from the gym and hit the trail! ‘Studies show running outdoors can burn more calories than the treadmill, thanks to the varied conditions and terrain,’ says Lewis Moses, running coach and INCUS advisor (incusperformance.com). ‘On the treadmill, you get assistance from the belt which can reduce your calorie burn. But, for me, the biggest advantage of running outdoors is the fresh air – nothing beats getting out and exploring new routes.’
TRY IT: Transition from treadmill to outdoors gradually so your body can acclimatise. ‘Switching one run a week is a great start,’ says Moses. ‘Keep it short to get used to the different terrain, then slowly increase the time or runs you spend outside. Aim to vary your training plan, whether intensity, duration or terrain. Running on softer trails not only helps your training, it can soften the impact on your legs.’
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10. Go on a cycling adventure
Fancy becoming one of the 10,000 people a year who cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats? Expert cyclists Hannah Reynolds and John Walsh have spent six years creating the LEJOG1000, a 1,000-mile ride that takes in the best bits of Britain via quieter, scenic routes. All is revealed in their book Britain’s Best Bike Ride, including 30 bespoke stages, complete with downloadable GPX files, custom maps and expert tips.
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11. Sign up to Swim London
Here’s a fun way to get fit while you see London. Swim and run your way through the city, from Hampstead to Herne Hill, with The Swimmer on March 11. It’s a sociable half-marathon journey through the capital, organised by cross-country swimming community Above Below.
Starting in north London with a cold-water swim in the famous Highgate swimming ponds, you’ll run south through the city’s Royal Parks, stopping for dips at landmark swimming spots, including The Serpentine. You’ll finish at Brockwell Lido for a cool-down swim and well-deserved grub.
The Swimmer costs £51.76; to book, visit abovebelow.sc
12. Rewild your mind
Could exercising outside save your mental health? For ex-Royal Marine Commando and Afghanistan veteran, Nick Goldsmith, immersing himself in nature helped heal his PTSD.
In Rewild Your Mind: Use nature as your guide to a happier, healthier life (Welbeck, £16.99), the bushcraft instructor and founder of The Woodland Warrior Programme for military veterans with PTSD shares proven techniques for enhancing your relationship with the outdoor world, from breathing exercises and forest bathing to natural navigation and wild swimming.
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