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.
"I don't do well in a gym lifting weights, so this has been good for me," says Crary, a consulting dietitian. "I like the scenery and fresh air, being outside. For me, it's more motivating than being in a gym."
Crary says the first few workouts with Colby were "really hard," but "he allows you to move at your own pace." She says she's felt an increase in stamina and energy since starting the group classes in late November, and "I'm definitely toned up." She recommends signing up with a friend for group exercise because "that way you're accountable."
Outdoor workouts seem to engender camaraderie. Last November, corporate researcher Katie Gilkinson Chaumont, 28, joined a friend in one of the Running 101 classes offered by Run On!, the athletic apparel stores that cater to runners. In twice-weekly sessions, Chaumont and dozens of other runners were grouped by experience and coached by mentors. "I can't believe it," Chaumont says. "Every week is the farthest and longest I've ever run. I was a first-time runner, and now I'm regularly running eight or nine miles every time I go out. We didn't know anyone when we started this. We didn't even tell our families we were doing it. Now we know all these other runners, and we're planning on doing a half-marathon in two months. It's amazing."
Getting out of the gym was just what she needed to amp up her workout regime, Chaumont says. "Being outside, you're doing your own thing. You don't feel conspicuous or that people are watching you. There are no mirrors. You're not waiting for a machine. You don't have to wipe something down. You don't have to wear makeup. Time seems to go faster when you're working out outdoors. You're not watching the minutes tick by on a treadmill."
Among the benefits Chaumont says she's experienced since joining the running class: weight loss, increased endurance and mental toughness. "When you are out there and you want to stop and tell yourself not to, that's mentally empowering," she says.
Chaumont's coach is Rebecca Wallace, who with husband Bob co-owns the four Run On! stores. Wallace usually takes her training runners from the Mockingbird Lane store on a loop that might include the Katy Trail or wind through the M Streets toward White Rock Lake.
Besides the six-week group classes, which cost between $90 and $250 and attract more than 1,500 runners every year, Run On! also hosts free "social runs" at 6 p.m. every Wednesday at all four store locations. These draw dozens of runners, including beginner run-walkers still trudging through 13-minute miles and elite marathon veterans, all moving at their own pace in small groups.
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"For a lot of runners this is how they socialize with each other," Wallace says. "When it starts getting lighter in the evenings in March, we'll get 50 or 60 runners at each store on a Wednesday night. It's a great way to get to know people."
She also likes to make up games to play with her runners. "We play 'Guess the house price' when we run through Lakewood. Social runs are great for getting to know your neighborhood. We get ideas for landscaping. You can meet more of your neighbors. You see who's out walking their dogs. It's just fun."
Rebecca Wallace offers one important bit of advice for making the transition to outdoor exercise, whether it's walking, running or bicycle riding: Do it with a friend. "I'm a safety freak, so I wouldn't recommend that anyone go out alone, especially after dark," Wallace says. And forget the iPod if you're on city streets, she advises. Loud music blocks out oncoming traffic, sirens or dangers such as unleashed dogs or unfriendly strangers. She also thinks there's value in making the commitment to a class. "If you've paid to be in a group, you're more likely to show up," she says. And more likely to keep heading outside to work out.
"I want to spread the message to more people that they can find real joy exercising outside a gym," Scott Colby says. "I have a vision of driving past playgrounds and seeing people of all ages working out. I'd love to see parks get as crowded as gyms."