January arrives and the gym overflows with the post-Christmas crowd, each with New Year’s resolutions firmly in hand. Now, here at Blacks we applaud any efforts to maintain a healthy life, but we know how dispiriting the unnatural indoor light, thumping soundtrack and queues for the free weights can be.
If you have made a pledge to be more active this year, if you’ve got the combined calories of a dozen chocolate oranges to shed, or if you just feel like shaking things up a little in 2019, then you may want to consider ditching the treadmill and heading into the outdoors. Britain’s hills and trails offer everything you need to hone your fitness levels, sculpt your physique and boost your mood, all without the annoyances that plague the gym-goer.
As with any exercise its important to understand your limits, know what you are doing and to have the right kit. You keep track of the first and we can help you out with the rest. Here’s our guide to getting fit in Nature’s Gym.
Treadmills are awful, fact. Why pound along with only The One Show for a view when the outdoors offers such rewards? I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits of trail and road running and I’d argue that either (or ideally both) beats the human hamster wheel.
Studies suggest that setting a treadmill to a 1% gradient accurately mirrors the intensity and calorie-burn of running on natural terrain. But that constant grind can’t compete with the variety and physical demands of undulating ground. Outside you will make constant small movements to accommodate bumps in the road, to change direction, or to leap an obstacle. These all help strengthen the small connective tissues around the joints. A linear trip-to-nowhere on the treadmill just doesn’t offer this.
Venturing outside will also help you build a better understanding of your body and mind, your strengths and weaknesses. Whereas a treadmill will assume you’re keeping up (even if you’re not) running under your own steam will give you a clearer sense of pace and what it takes you to get from A to B.
Okay, you won’t get rained on in the gym; you won’t get blasted with winter winds. But is that necessarily a good thing. A wet and windy evening can make you feel hardcore, out on a mission, proving something and defying the elements. This is all fuel for a new personal best. On a nice day the pleasures are even more obvious as you carve your way through ever-changing scenery rather than plodding towards a gym window or wall.
As outdoor hobbies go, running is a simple proposition. Your only essential kit is a pair of shoes. Road shoes are lighter, whereas trail footwear will generally be more structured and offer substantial grip. For comfort you’ll benefit from a t-shirt that wicks sweat effectively, a decent, lightweight waterproof and a pair of comfortable running socks. If you progress to serious mileage then you’ll also reap the rewards of a good running pack, with plenty of space for essentials like maps, phones, keys and snacks. Once you start chugging down the energy gels to fuel a few more miles you’ll know that you’ve escaped the gym rat-race.
Hiking will get you out into the world on your own terms and turn every hill into a natural StairMaster. With the correct equipment and a sense of adventure, the opportunities for winter rambles are endless. Whether you complete a few miles or a day-long trek, the fitness impact of hiking will rival any gym-based equivalent.
Hiking is an aerobic exercise, which means it tests and builds your cardiorespiratory performance. Simply put, regular walking will improve heart and lung function and train your body to move oxygen more efficiently through your system. On top of this, the repetition of putting one foot in front of the other will increase the strength of muscle and connective tissues. Calorie burning depends on the physical makeup of the individual, but the average person will tick off between 300 – 500 calories per hour.
General fitness advice suggests a minimum of thirty minutes vigorous exercise per day, or an average of 3-4 hours per week. It’s easy to achieve this when hiking because the exercise itself becomes a by-product of your time outdoors. Rather than focusing on calories burned or floors climbed, hiking refocuses your attention on your surroundings and provides a full range of sensory stimulus to take your mind off the efforts you’re making.
It’s no surprise, then, that studies have clearly linked hiking with mental wellbeing. Researchers have found that hiking helps decrease anxious thoughts, particularly rumination or obsessive thoughts. The study compared the brain activity of hikers following 90 minutes walking in natural or urban landscapes. The countryside-ramblers reported lower levels of worry and displayed less activity in the part of the brain associated with anxiety.
As with running, hiking requires few essentials, and what you do need is generally in proportion to the scale of your goals. There are some non-negotiables, though. Protect your feet with hiking boots or cross-terrain shoes. Look particularly for a decent amount of grip and ankle support. A layering system is all-important, especially in winter. This comprises a baselayer, an insulating midlayer and a waterproof (and ideally, windproof) shell. It is always advisable to have each layer with you as weather can change rapidly and unexpectedly.
Beyond these basic must-haves it becomes a question of comfort. Decent hiking socks will keep your feet warm and protected against game-ending blisters. A walking pole may prove useful on more tricky terrain. Lastly, if you are going any distance at all then a pack becomes your best friend: a place to stash your life-support system, your gadgets and a flask of tea to toast the top of the hill.
Indoor cycling has its advantages. The ability to set a fixed route – including elevation profiles – means you can home in on specific aspects of improvement. Even more positively, a spinning class helps with motivation and injects some social and competitive elements into your workout.
That said, we’d still opt for an outdoor circuit all winter long. Whether you prioritise fitness or experience, cycling in the fresh air delivers every time. As with running and hiking, pedalling through nature will boost mental wellbeing and give you something inspirational, engaging, or at the very least distracting, to focus on rather than aching calves or a sore saddle.
We’d hope that an outdoor ride would be more than just a diversion, though. The varied terrain and natural undulations, coupled with an actual sense of your pace, will fire up your adrenaline. Obviously, it is important to be careful on your bike, but nothing in the gym can match the thrill of a speedy descent to celebrate the hill-climb in your wake. That natural adrenaline boost will leave you pumping full or mood-enhancing endorphins: match that cycling machine.
There is a lot to be said for the physical benefits of cycling in the winter as well. Studies suggest that exercise in colder temperatures promotes fat burning and reduces sugar levels. On top of this, cycling on a real bike requires you to make constant micro-movements to maintain balance. Each of these contributes to a strengthening of your core stabilising muscles. In short, cycling outdoors does a lot more than just the basic calorie-burning you manage on a stationary bike.
Lastly, you will need to buy a bike to cycle outdoors. Yes, this can be an expensive investment but, hey, you get your own bike. It’s a tool, a means of transport, a project and a friend. With easy-accessibility to one of the many, many UK cycling clubs, it’s also a passport to a new community. British Cycling now numbers over 125,000 members, so it’s a big club.
Once you have the bike you’ll need a helmet. Those are the two absolute requirements. We’d also recommend you have some basic tools to fix any simple mishaps and get you home safe. Beyond that, though, the ardent cyclist can find an endless array of ways to upgrade their ride. Bad weather doesn’t mean a washout anymore, with innovative, ultra-light materials giving rise to a whole new generation of waterproof, windproof and insulated cycling gear.
These are just some of the more obvious ways to achieve a gym-beating workout in the outdoors. Climbing, swimming, rowing, skiing, scampering up a tree . . . gym machines were designed to mimic these movement, not the other way around. Get back to basics and take those New Year Resolutions outdoors.