Mother Nature can be an inspiring personal trainer. Follow her rhythms to banish workout boredom, stave off injury, and build your fitness.
Lift weights. Run. Do yoga. Shower. Repeat.
Take a look around the gym or health club during your next visit. You’ll probably see a lot of familiar faces in familiar locations. The people running on the treadmill are the same ones who were there three months ago; those in the cycling class are back on their bikes for the fourth time this week. Many gym-goers stick with the same general routine, day in and day out, month after month, year after year.
While consistency is key for creating good workout habits, we may be shortchanging our fitness — and our exercise enjoyment — if we grind through the same regimen year-round. At the same time, we’re increasing the risk of injury, boredom, burnout, and stagnation.
“Improvements in performance, strength, speed, or other fitness metrics are not linear,” says Troy Jacobson, senior national director of Endurance Sports Training at Life Time. Doing more of the same, or constantly pushing harder, won’t get you far for very long.
Admittedly, it can feel complicated and time-consuming to devise a new plan; it may seem easier to stick to the tried and true. But unless you are a competitive athlete, focusing on one activity year-round doesn’t do your body any favors.
A 2014 Orthopedics Today report found that year-round single-sport specialization leads to more injuries in young athletes. Among adults, both yoga and indoor-cycling enthusiasts have experienced an uptick in overuse injuries in recent years, some of them severe. It’s not the activity that’s problematic — yoga and cycling are both excellent workouts — but the lack of variation.
Luckily, there is a personal trainer to help you mix things up: Mother Nature.
No matter where you live, nature follows seasonal cycles. Summer is a time of sun, heat, and ripening — a season of vibrancy and the bounty of life. Autumn brings cooler temperatures and shorter days. In winter, the earth rests. And spring blooms with new energy: fresh life that flowers once again in summertime.
We humans are seasonal creatures, too. As light, temperature, and vegetation change, so do we — inside and out. One powerful way to reconnect with our bodies and improve our fitness is to shift how we think about exercise — by moving our bodies in accordance with nature’s seasons.
“We can get into ruts with our workouts,” says wellness coach Kate Larsen, MCC, CWC, NBC-HWC, author of Progress Not Perfection. It’s important to find a sense of connection and autonomy.
“The seasons give you the opportunity to rethink your workouts, incorporate others, get outside, and explore types of movements you don’t normally practice,” she explains.
Not everything needs to happen at once. There’s a time for hard training and a time for rest and recovery. There’s a time for big performance pushes (competitions and events) and a time for tuning in to your body to better learn what it needs.
“Athletes are familiar with going hard — after all, working out gets results,” writes coach Erin Taylor, author of Work In: The Athlete’s Plan for Real Recovery and Winning Results. “What few people are familiar with is resting easy. . . . When you go hard, you have to rest hard, too.”
With nature’s guidance, you can make the most of varying energies, interests, and seasonal resources to reach your physical potential.
Summertime brings more daylight hours and longer, brighter evenings. In many areas, this equates to more time spent outdoors. Meanwhile, in regions where heat and humidity become oppressive (and even dangerous), exercisers seek shade and shelter.
Whether you spend your time indoors or out, summer is a high-energy time primed for novelty, adventure, and social connection — even in your workouts. “It’s the perfect time for group activities,” says Cat Thompson, founder of the coaching company Emotional Technologies.
Keep it fun: Join a cycling group and ride to new and different places. Sign up for an obstacle-course race with friends. Consider a softball, tennis, or basketball league — summer is perfect for good-natured competition, too.
In the gym, keep changing things up, and plunge into a group setting; many health clubs offer group fitness classes and sports clubs where you can connect with people who have similar interests. Check out www.myvirtualmission.com or www.runtheedge.com to join or create a virtual group that tracks distance and workout milestones, allowing you to compete remotely against thousands of others. (For more ways to rediscover the joys of fitness, visit “Are We Having Fun Yet?“)
Summer is also an ideal time to take a cue from our ancestors, exploring the outdoors with all our senses while crawling, climbing, and jumping. Hit up a park to leap and bound from one object to another, parkour style, or try a MovNat workout — lifting rocks, logs, and other natural objects for a back-to-nature workout.
Hike novel trails. Venture out to the mountains to climb, or head to the water to swim, row, or sail. If heat, sun exposure, and pollution are concerns, activities such as indoor rock climbing, trapeze, and aerial yoga are ideal.
Strength-training enthusiasts can take their sessions outside for a body-weight-only or kettlebell workout. Yogis can also practice outside, choosing to flow through familiar poses on their own or joining the growing number of outdoor classes available during the summer months. (For an extra dose of adventure, seek out an AcroYoga class that adds partner-based, gravity-defying poses in a safe environment.)
And don’t forget to celebrate! Vitality and sociability are at high levels in summer. After you’ve sweated together, have a meal with friends, play music, and stay up and gaze at the stars. You’ve earned it.
Fall: Let Go
As the weather cools and days shorten, the carefree, dynamic energy of summer evolves toward seriousness and introspection. The softer qualities of autumn take over — trees lose their leaves, and bright colors yield to muted ones.
For farmers, it’s the hardworking, up-before-dawn season of the harvest; for kids, it’s back to school, when homework and schedules replace outdoor fun and long days with friends. At the office, important projects often come due.
We often think of spring as a cleaning time, but fall may be the year’s most opportune quarter to pare down and jettison what is old, worn out, and no longer serving us. This is a season of organization and orderliness, one that lends itself to minimalism.
This impulse to streamline is powerful — and not limited to the closet, attic, or garage. Use this time to declutter your fitness routine as well. Ask yourself what exercise habits you can kick to the curb: What feels stuck, dull, inefficient, or ineffective?
“The releasing of old habits is hard,” says Thompson, “but ultimately it makes way for new energy and new opportunities.”
In the gym, simplicity can be your watchword. Pared-down, efficient workouts with more discipline and structure are in order. (For a quick kettlebell workout, see “The 20-Minute Kettlebell Workout“.)
Reap the rewards of a DIY metabolic strength-training workout: Choose four to eight strength or power movements that involve both the upper and lower body: think squats, deadlifts, lunges, swings, rows, pushups, overhead presses, carries, jumps, medicine-ball throws, and planks. Perform them in circuit fashion, back to back with minimal rest, using weights that allow you to complete eight to 12 repetitions.
Go with body-weight circuits if you don’t have weights or a gym membership, performing as many reps of pushups, squats, or lunges as you can in a specified period — say, 30 seconds for upper-body moves and 45 for lower — for repeated sets with minimal rest. Even five minutes can change how you feel and move.
Additionally, as we transition into quieter times spent indoors — and seasons associated with coughing and sneezing — turn your focus to your lungs. Activities that involve deep, intense breathing (such as sprints and interval training) are especially effective. Vinyasa yoga is another apt option, building strength and mobility through sequences that are intentionally tied to the breath. Indoor cycling will also get your lungs (and legs) pumping.
Try a class at your local gym or the following interval workout on your own: On a stationary bike, perform five rounds of intense pedaling (in or out of the saddle) for 60 seconds, followed by 90 seconds at an easy pace. Then complete five more rounds, this time maintaining the length of the work intervals (60 seconds) while decreasing the rest to match (also 60 seconds). Finally, do five rounds of 60 seconds of work, followed by 30 seconds at an easy pace. The entire workout will take 30 minutes.
Winter: Turn Inward
People respond to winter in different ways. For some, it’s time to rest and hibernate — especially in colder climes, where even a trip outdoors can be daunting.
Others go to the opposite extreme: Millions of Americans each year make ambitious New Year’s resolutions, vowing to lose weight and get fit by spring. These wintertime exercisers are aware of a need for movement to reach their goals.
Whichever camp you fall into, you can avoid the extreme traps of winter by tuning in to the qualities of the colder months.
“Winter is the quietest, most reflective season,” says Thompson. “It’s a time to go inward.”
Meditation, journaling, therapy, and other strategies for exploring untapped thoughts and feelings can be especially effective in winter. “Allow yourself to go to new places emotionally,” she advises. “You may not be comfortable there, but that’s the point — being willing to explore what makes you uncomfortable.”
What does this have to do with fitness? Everything.
Instead of fighting the season, you can reinforce this sense of inward vitality with a turn toward more internal physical practices as well. Ancient modalities such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong, and more modern disciplines, including Feldenkrais and Pilates, can improve balance, coordination, flexibility, and mobility, while teaching you to use your body more efficiently. These practices can be both physically restorative and mentally challenging. (For a restorative yoga flow, visit “The Restorative Workout“.)
While any time of year is a good time to listen to your body and heed its signals, the quiet of winter primes us for this type of reflection. By working with the natural desire to slow down, we have a unique opportunity to notice things that we might otherwise ignore.
“Winter is the time to get hidden information from our bodies,” says Thompson. “Your body is a receiver that helps you tune in to what’s happening in your own world.”
Low-intensity cardiovascular activity is another good choice in winter. It’s possible to maintain (and even boost) your cardiovascular and joint health, as well as overall mobility, with leisurely activities that don’t leave you depleted.
Moreover, at a lower intensity, cardio can calm you down and improve your mood.
If you are tempted to use long bouts of cardio to offset winter weight gain, remember that, like animals, humans evolved to store fat through the winter for our own health and survival. The added pounds are usually balanced out by an equally natural loss during spring and summer.
Instead of using hard-charging cardio for quick, often unsustainable results, reimagine it as a tool to reconnect with your body, reduce stress, and have fun.
Though icy roads and subzero temps in some places may make winter seem inopportune for certain types of cardio — think road biking and trail running — there are still plenty of options for raising your heart rate.
Snowshoeing, downhill skiing, ice skating, and sledding are just a few of the many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and connect with nature during a time of year when it’s easier to retreat indoors. The activities themselves will keep you warm — not to mention challenge your cardiovascular and muscular strength.
Recent research suggests that cross-country skiing, which uses both upper- and lower-body moves, is among the most effective forms of cardio available. (Learn how to up your cross-country game at “Hit Your Glide in Cross-Country Skiing“.)
And “fat bikes” — thick-tired, ultra-sturdy mountain bikes designed for rugged winter conditions — can open up worlds of new workout options, too, with more dedicated trails becoming available every year.
Just remember to reserve time for recovery, advises Taylor: “Give yourself permission to slow down.”
Spring: Stretch Your Limits
The most dramatic seasonal change of the year happens from March to June, as temperatures climb, days lengthen, birds return, and life in all forms comes rushing back. The year’s cycle renews itself in this season of rebirth.
Beneath this outpouring of new life, however, is a near-epic struggle. New growth requires willpower and perseverance. Like a bean seed sprouting from the earth, the spirit of spring is like a pressure valve releasing, priming us for action.
That’s the energy of the season: powerful, creative, determined. Which makes it the perfect time to get serious about your health and fitness.
Write down your workout goal — building new strength or athleticism, perhaps. Then break it down into steps and start working. “What have you been telling yourself you can’t do?” asks Larsen. Spring is the time to question those assumptions and tackle them head-on.
Strength training is perhaps the ideal spring activity. It’s aspirational and challenging for many, and it promotes growth and change. Hiring a trainer — or joining forces with a dedicated partner or group — can help build confidence and accountability, whether you’re an experienced lifter or new to the world of weights. (For a two-month strength program, visit “The Easy-Strength Workout“.)
You can tap into the season’s growth-inducing power by upping the ante in almost any fitness pursuit. If you’re a runner, go for more speed. If you’re a cyclist, attempt longer climbs. If you’re a yogi, strive to master tougher and more athletic asanas.
Whatever you choose, remember that by taking advantage of the opportunities of each season, and avoiding the pitfalls, you can gain a deeper appreciation for your body’s shifting needs — one year, one season, one workout at a time.
This originally appeared as “Move Through the Seasons” in the July/August 2018 print issue of Experience Life.