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As kids we didn't call it exercise. We called it playing outside. We didn't take spinning classes; we rode bikes. We also jumped rope, rollerbladed, ran ourselves breathless around the yard yelling "You're it!" and built up our biceps and triceps climbing trees.
It was fun. It still is, which is why a growing number of people are skipping workouts in the gym to play outside again.
Dallas fitness trainer Scott Colby, 35, helped launch the trend two years ago when he started leading outdoor workout classes for a dozen women three times a week in Cole Park. Now he has more than 65 signed up for his series of outside fitness camps, which he holds three mornings and three evenings a week, rain or shine, in Highland Park's Lakeside Park. Using timed games and basic exercises such as squats, lunges and jumping jacks, Colby supervises the 45-minute rounds, focusing on strength training and pumping up the heart rate with intervals of running and jumping. (Colby charges exercisers $177 to participate in his 12-session camp.)
Two Saturday mornings a month, Colby also hosts a free co-ed "Playground Fitness Club" organized through Meetup.com. In that one, he leads 45 minutes of relays and other games using sets of movements that incorporate playground apparatus such as swings, stairs, monkey bars, park benches and equipment as basic as rubber balls and hula hoops. It's not unusual to see 15 or 20 grown-ups skipping down the sidewalk in one of Colby's classes or "bear-crawling" like oversized toddlers across the grass.
"I call it a 'gym without walls,'" says Colby of his playground workouts. "Most people are indoors most of the day. They're cramped in an office or a cubicle. They don't get much exposure to the outside. Gyms can be crowded, especially this time of year. There are space issues at the gym, waiting in line for machines. They're loud and a little bit intimidating, too, if you're new to exercise and you're looking at buff bodies in outfits you wish you could be wearing but can't. Outdoors, there's plenty of space and fresh air and no waiting in line for anything."
You also experience the "fun component" outside, Colby says. He typically plans his workout sessions as informal, sometimes goofy games. He'll use a deck of cards or a toss of dice to determine which exercises and how many repetitions everyone does. Teams of two, four or six compete against each other to complete timed circuits. The competitions stay friendly, with every finisher a "winner."
Playground movements so natural to kids—skipping, hopping, jumping, throwing—aren't so easy as we get older, says Colby, whose fitness classes over the past two years have trained more than 200 women, ranging in age from 17 to mid-60s. But doing those motions again as a grownup, he says, helps condition the body for the physical requirements of everyday adult life: sitting and standing, getting in and out of cars, climbing stairs, squatting down to pick up a child or a heavy bag of groceries, or hoisting a carry-on bag into an airplane overhead bin.
"My training philosophy is about learning to train the body in these functional patterns of strength, balance and core stabilization," Colby says. "Walking, jogging, lifting, bending, pushing, pulling. Think of a playground and everything you can do—climb, run, hang on monkey bars, squat and crawl. You can get your body to move in different motions in three dimensions when you're outdoors. You're mostly using your own body weight. It doesn't require machines. At a machine in a gym, you're in one plane of motion, you're limited."
You might also get bored with those same old gym routines and therefore be less likely to keep doing them, Colby says. He recently surveyed his repeat fitness campers about what they like when working out out-of-doors. "Mental stimulation" was at the top of the list of reasons, Colby says. "They said being outside made them feel sharper and more focused. They liked being out in nature again. And women said they liked the group setting. There is a sense of bonding and friendship that develops."
Colby also mentions the "randomness" of exercising in a public park setting year-round. He has called off a weekday workout only once because of bad weather, he says. On one icy night this past December, he was in Lakeside Park as usual, leading four bundled-up women through their paces by the light of a single streetlamp. Only lightning and hail, he says, would cause him to send everyone home without working up a sweat.
Weather doesn't bother him, but watching a fall-off in attendance does, he says. He'll call or e-mail absent exercisers, urging them to return to the park for his workouts. "Gyms don't want everyone to show up," Colby says. "If every member did come to a gym, they couldn't handle it. They count on most people dropping out after two or three months. I get frustrated when people don't show."
Dana Crary, 25, signed up for Colby's fitness camp after trying it with a pal on bring-a-friend night. She'd been working out in a gym, doing some aerobics and weightlifting classes, she says, but was looking for a way to tone up for her wedding day in late February.