Dedicated fitness enthusiasts are very often creatures of habit. Some of us prefer to exercise indoors. Some of us prefer to exercise outdoors. And once we find a route or regimen that works for us – gosh darn it, we like to stick to it.
The trouble is, when we opt out of trying new activities in new environments, even the most satisfying regimens can gradually become stale and routine. Not only do we risk becoming complacent, bored or burned out on our exercise program, we can easily develop muscle imbalances and overuse injuries that set us back or throw us off our fitness plans altogether. We also miss out on the simple pleasures inherent in novel experiences, new learning opportunities and fresh workout venues.
Experts have long recommended cross-training (practicing different active skills or pursuits) as one of the best solutions to the challenges of boredom, plateauing and overuse injuries. And moving between indoor and outdoor environments can be a particularly good way of diversifying your program while also building in some changes of scenery.
“There are some very real psychological and physiological benefits to balancing your exercise routine between indoor and outdoor environments,” says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist of the American Council on Exercise. One major benefit to outdoor training, he notes, “is that it tends to be more engaging and mentally stimulating due to the changing scenery and terrain – not to mention the mood boost that comes from being outside in the sunshine.”
Another benefit of many outdoor activities, says Bryant, “is that they involve higher levels of weight-bearing activity, which improves bone density by stimulating greater bone development.”
On the other hand, he notes, “The option of working out indoors can make exercise more appealing and feasible during inclement weather.” Indoor studio and fitness classes can deliver a motivating group experience that might be too challenging to organize outdoors, and ? indoor workout machines can more easily provide a consistent, well-controlled and lower-impact activity.
Low-impact machines are especially important for people with joint problems or who are recovering from injuries, Bryant notes. “But even if you’re not injured,” he says, “it’s important to maintain a balance between high- and low-impact routines to maintain the health of your body over time.” Those training for endurance events, in particular, may find it helpful to intermittently take stress off their joints by doing some of their cardio workouts on low-impact equipment.
Embrace a Balance
The point is, both indoor and outdoor environments have their benefits, and the wise fitness enthusiast would do well to seek out the advantages offered by both.
“If you run outdoors, come inside for some yoga – if you lift weights indoors, get outside for a run or a hike,” advises Bob Esquerre, MA, MES, a Cincinnati, Ohio–based personal trainer and an expert in spinal alignment and body mechanics. Doing a whole array of indoor and outdoor activities not only offers you more fitness options to choose from on any given day, he notes, it also tends to create better fitness results.
“Most activities create a unique set of muscular imbalances because they create a repetitive motion,” he explains. “For example, distance cyclists tend to develop knee and upper- and lower-back issues. A varied program that includes weight training and yoga can minimize their risk while improving their performance and longevity in their sport.
“Building more indoor and outdoor variety into your routine can help round out your workouts,” Esquerre continues. “Getting out of your usual routine and beyond your established comfort zone can also jump-start your body, helping you push past any plateaus in weight loss or conditioning.”
An added bonus: Moving between indoor and outdoor environments can help you expand and custom tailor your athletic experience based on your changing moods and needs, so you get more satisfaction out of your fitness regimen over time.
Tony Schiller, the 2002 U.S. Masters Triathlete of the Year, from Chanhassen, Minn., particularly likes the way the indoor-outdoor aspects of his hybrid routine complement each other. “Indoor workouts provide me with a short task list that’s all about the body. I am focused and concise,” says the four-time Hawaii Ironman World Championship competitor. “Being outdoors is a completely different experience. There is nothing like feeling the earth below my feet, seeing my breath and hearing the sounds of nature. Being outdoors is my time to think; I don’t get to do that as much amid the bustle of the gym.”
Inspired to hybridize your own fitness routine? Read on to investigate the advantages embedded in both indoor and outdoor contexts – then start blending up a regimen that’s just right for you.
Research shows that the rejuvenation you feel after an outdoor workout is not just in your imagination. Exposure to the elements and outdoor scenery can have a marked, positive effect on your mental, emotional and physical state.
Recent studies have focused on the negative ions present in outdoor environments. Created when air molecules come in contact with sunlight, radiation, and moving air and water, these tiny electrically charged particles have been found to generate feelings of alertness, mental clarity and elevated mood.
“We’ve shown that artificially produced negative air ions significantly benefit both seasonal and nonseasonal depression,” says Columbia University researcher Michael Terman, PhD, who has overseen controlled studies of artificially produced negative air ions delivered to subjects experiencing clinical depression. Naturally occurring negative ions are found in the greatest concentrations in the mountains, near the crashing ocean surf and in the clean air after a thundershower.
Many outdoor activities, like hiking, trail running and cross-country skiing, are also terrific ways to improve your proprioception (your sense of balance and where your body is in space). In the outdoors, you need to watch for and accommodate all sorts of obstacles – tree roots, potholes, puddles and the like. The adjustments your body must make on changing terrain engage core and skeletal muscles that aren’t as active when the turf doesn’t vary. (For more on proprioception, see “Hot on the Trail” in the April 2006 archive.)
Most outdoor workouts have the built-in appeal of a destination. Whether you’re doing an out-and-back run or biking a mountain-trail loop, physically proceeding along a route and gauging your progress toward a bona fide place offers some folks a sense of satisfaction and motivation they just can’t seem to get from the progress bars or time-elapsed readout on equipment monitors.
When flexibility and freedom are important to you, stepping outside for your workout may be more convenient than squeezing in a trip to the gym. Of course, that’s assuming you have a nearby place suitable for your activity of choice. If the nearest trail or outdoor bike route is a time-consuming or traffic-congested drive away, that particular advantage may not apply. Then again, making a special trip to explore a hiking, biking or ski trail in a beautiful location may hold an appeal all its own.
Indoor workouts provide reliability, variety, control and accessibility. The indoor climate means no concerns about ice, wind, heat, humidity or dangerous ozone levels. You can get up early and not have to work out in pitch dark. You can train steadily through the seasons to stay in prime shape for your sport of choice.
For example, golfers can continue to develop their strength and flexibility during the snow season, rock climbers can save on drive time by practicing on indoor rock walls, and triathletes can swim, bike and run to their hearts’ content – without fear of hypothermia or heatstroke.
The controlled environment and adjustable equipment found in gyms offers special advantages for those rehabilitating from injury, too. Physical therapists often prescribe exercises that require gym equipment, and having access to trained staff who can guide you through any tough spots can make a big difference in how safe you feel doing the work.
Health clubs are also great places to find built-in structure and accountability. By taking a regular class, setting up childcare, making appointments with personal trainers or dietitians, or signing up for fee-based programs, you can create a comfortable matter-of-factness about your workouts, and a sense of “pull” toward fitness that might otherwise be challenging for you to manifest on your own.
Working out at a club can also help you overcome any “but I don’t know how” fitness reservations. A good health club will offer programs that meet you where you are and teach you what you need to know. They also offer fitness testing that helps you orient your efforts toward your goals, so you make maximal progress while avoiding the risks of injury and overtraining. (For more on fitness testing, see “Putting Your Fitness to the Test” in the October 2005 archive.)
And then there’s the facility. Choose a great club and you have an appealing place to go and to enjoy – a destination of a different sort, one that just might tempt you away from less rewarding spots, like the shopping mall or that sports bar with the great chicken wings. Even on the days you aren’t up for a workout, wouldn’t a sauna or massage be a nice way to wind down?
Assuming you do at least occasionally go for the workout, the variety and proximity of many different types of equipment allow you to move from aerobic work to strength training to stretching without skipping a beat. They also let you work out on machines that would break the budget (and burst the confines) of most home gyms. The facility may also give you access to special features – like racquet-sports courts, climbing walls and pools – that make it easy for you to branch out into a diverse array of fitness activities you may not otherwise be able to try or easily enjoy.
Indoor exercise can provide the opportunity for social interaction – with or without advance planning. Encountering the same friendly faces at your Tuesday-morning Pilates class or being part of a gym-based weight-loss group can create a sense of community that keeps you looking forward to the next session – and perhaps makes you feel more accountable for showing up. Sometimes, it’s also nice to know you can just go and be around other people in a more anonymous way, and to get charged up by the energy of lots of folks being active in one place.
If you enjoy exercising with a friend or partner who runs, walks or cycles at a pace or intensity different from your own, a cardio-floor environment may be the ideal solution. The adjustable speed, incline and other programmable features of treadmills, elliptical trainers and stationary bikes allow each of you to go at your own pace while remaining side by side the whole time. You can also split off for on-your-own workouts and still enjoy the camaraderie of going to the gym together.
Mix It Up
A strategically and intuitively balanced indoor-outdoor workout program can be the most direct route to your fitness goals – and it can significantly deepen your fitness satisfaction. So sign up for that Pilates or aquatics class. Go boldly into the free-weight area of the lifting floor. In-line skate or bike your way across town. Or take a leisurely run on a riverside trail, infusing your body with mood-boosting negative ions that leave you feeling ready for anything.
Whatever you do, make a point of taking your workouts wherever they want to go. Your body will happily go along for the ride.
Kate Larsen, PCC, is a certified and licensed wellness and business coach at Wellcoaches Corporation. She is also a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor.