Get Fitter (and Happier) than Ever
Working out outside is addictive.
I know this first hand. For years, I only worked out in gyms. And I liked it. I looked good and felt good and didn’t think anything was missing…
…Until I moved to Panama. Nearby outdoor workout areas enticed me to ditch the gym and go to them from time to time.
“From time to time” soon became all the time. I got hooked. And I’ve felt better than ever since.
But working out outside isn’t perfect.
Decide for yourself with these pros and cons of working out outside versus the gym.
Body Benefits of Working Out Outside vs. at the Gym
✓ It Makes You Super-Natural
When I work out in nature, I resort to natural movements like sprinting, jumping, throwing, pulling, and pushing, to try to get super-naturally fit.
These “compound movements,” as they’re called, work a bunch of muscles at once, which most gym machines and exercises don’t do. They help you build a more natural-looking and well-balanced body.
And since you don’t have machines to guide our movement, these outdoor workout exercises also improve your coordination and require a wider range of motion, which keeps you flexible and mobile.
✗ …But It’s Harder to Get Super Strong
Especially the legs.
Sprints, one-legged exercises, rock tosses, and jumps do a pretty good job, but they can’t compare to the loads I can lift by squatting or dead-lifting so I sometimes go to the gym for a change of pace and a heavy leg workout.
✓ You Never Have to “Do Abs” Again
Crunches and planks my least favorite exercises, but they felt like a necessary evil when working out at the gym.
I’ve ditched “doing abs” and have stronger cores than ever because the compound exercises work my abs at the same time as they work my other muscles.
✗ …But You’ll Never Be a Hand Model Again, Either
Throwing rough stones, hanging on bars, and doing push-ups and handstands on the dirt and cement have given me my fair share of blisters and callouses.
✓ It Helps You Build a Statuesque Body
My ideal body-type is a real-life version of the statue of David: well-balanced and not too big, but still freaking ripped.
Thanks to their multi-muscle-building nature, I’ve found it easier to achieve this ideal with outdoor workout exercises rather than at the gym.
✗ …But Not Mr. and Ms. Olympia Bodies
If I instead wanted to build big bulging muscles, I’d be better off in a gym. Machines and barbells make it easier to isolate and grow your show muscles.
✓ It’s More Idiot and Injury Proof than the Gym
Like most gym-goers, I’ve been guilty of loading more weight than I should, looking like a fool while over-exerting myself, then feeling like a fool when we strain a muscle (normally my back) because of it.
It’s a lot harder to do dumb stuff like that working out outside because there are no weights and I typically do movements our bodies are designed to do.
Even better, the natural movements seem to have made me more resistant to injury by increasing my mobility, working balance muscles, and toughening my tendons.
✗ …But It’s Harder to Recover From Specific Injuries
If I were to seriously injure myself, I’d probably have to spend more time back in the gym, where it’s easier to target and rehab specific muscles.
Psychological Benefits of Working Out Outside vs at the Gym
✓ It Makes You More Creative
The basic outdoor workout exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and sprints get boring fast.
And a bored body doesn’t get fit.
✗ …But You Don’t Always Want to Have to Be Creative
Sometimes I’d prefer not to have to brainstorm outdoor workout exercises. I’d rather pick up a heavy barbell a few times and be over with it.
There are also far fewer books, blogs, and other resources with inspiration and info on working out outside.
✓ It Improves Your General Well-Being
I spend most of my days cooped-up, poking at a computer, so the opportunity to get out and get fresh air is the vitamin I need to keep me from losing my minds.
Not to mention that I get actual Vitamin D from working out outside too.
Ample studies support the common sense that working out outside is good for your soul. This review, The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all, explains that working out outside has been found to reduce stress and mental fatigue, improve our moods, and even make us work harder without feeling like we’re exerting yourself as much.
✓ It Makes You Uncomfortable
Most would argue that exposure to unpleasant cold, heat, wind, and/or rain is a big disadvantage of working out outside versus at the gym.
I’d argue the opposite. Sure, it’s unpleasant to exercise outside when the weather sucks, but overcoming that discomfort brings big rewards you can’t get from the gym.
Some of the workouts I remember most fondly are the hardcore ones in pouring rain and finger-numbing cold that I didn’t want to do but did anyway.
✗ …But It Still Sucks to Work Out Outside When the Weather’s Bad
Kim’s not convinced by my arguments about the benefits of working out outside in inclement weather.
Neither am I sometimes. No matter how good it may be for me, I admittedly work out outside less, either going back to the gym or doing workouts at home, when the weather’s shitty.
Plus, bad weather can also make surfaces dangerously slippery.
✓ It Doesn’t Feel Like Work
With the access cards, work stations, routines, harsh fluorescent light, and annoying people, going to the gym can feel a lot like going to the office.
Working out outside feels like being a kid again, going out to play.
✗ …So Sometimes It’s Hard to Get Back to Work
Because I enjoy the fresh air so much when working out outside, I tend to loiter around too long and delay getting back to work, even though I know I have to.
✓ It’s Good Practice at not Giving a Crap What Other People Think
Strangers sometimes gawk at me—some have even taken pictures!—when I do unusual outdoor workout exercises like piggybacks or beach rock throws.
This attention felt awkward at first, but pretty soon I got used to it. I even started to feel proud of it, especially when I noticed people starting to copy me.
My lack of giving a crap about what others think about my outdoor workouts has carried over to other parts of my lives.
✓ It’s Less Competitive
There’s no “How much do you bench?” garbage with outdoor workouts.
I still feel envious of people who roll up and do one-armed pull-ups or press-to-handstands, but since differences in strength aren’t so easily quantified nobody cares as much.
✗ …But It’s Also Harder to Track Progress
Without weights and plates, it’s not as easy to track progress and strength gains when working out outside. This can be demotivating.
✓ You Can Wear Whatever You Want
Not only do gyms often feel like fashion show contests, but most require covered toes and torsos for sanitary, safety, and social reasons.
Outdoors, I can be as unstylish, “unsanitary,” “unsafe,” and anti-social as I want. That’s bliss for fellow sock-haters and torso-exposers like me.
✓ It’s Welcoming of All Levels
Going to a gym for the first time can feel intimidating. You feel like everyone’s watching you, judging you for your poor form, and mocking the sissy light weights you’re lifting.
When you work out outside, often nobody else is around to judge you. And, for reasons I’ve yet to understand, the people who work out outside tend to be more supportive and not judgmental at all.
✗ …But It Can Be Harder to Get Started
As I already mentioned, you can find many more resources to help you get started working out at the gym than for working out outside.
Also, without the abundant mirrors that you have in a gym (unless you’re at Lumpini Park in Bangkok), it’s harder to self-assess your form (…and marvel at your hardening, swelling body).
I’ve tried to do my part by putting together a comprehensive beginners’ guide to natural outdoor workouts. Check it out and leave a comment if you have any questions.
✓ It’s Fun With Friends
In the ten-plus years I’ve worked out inside, I never once organized a group workout with friends at the gym.
But I’ve been leading group workouts regularly since I started working out outside. All but the laziest of my friends are keen to get their butts off their couches and try something new in social environment. And it’s actually fun!
See my post on 7 Partner Exercises for a Fun but Intense Full-Body Workout for some inspiration.
✓ It Saves Money
If anything, you’re getting the most out of your tax dollars when you work out outside.
✗ …But Some People Need to Pay to Be Motivated
Some people motivate themselves to start going to the gym by signing big-buck fixed contract gym memberships.
And for some people it works, though gyms generally end up the winners. (Here’s a decent Planet Money podcast episode on this topic.)
Whether you work out outside or at a gym, we’re believe there are better ways to motivate yourself to work out.
✓ You Can Work Out Outside Anywhere
Beaches, playgrounds, forests, basketball courts, pools, stairs, grass fields… you name it.
Wherever I am in the world, I always manage to find somewhere to work out outside.
✗ …But It’s Not Always Ideal or Easy
Not all neighborhoods have the space, parks, and calisthenics equipment (at least a kid’s playground) that I prefer to have for working out outside.
I can make do for a week or so in those places, but if I were to live there I’d have to go to a gym… or move somewhere nicer.
✓ It’s Cleaner
I don’t care how muddy working out outside can get, getting dirty with dirt is still cleaner than exposing yourself to a swirl of sweat, sneezes, and spits at the gym, no matter how many times you spray everything with sanitizer.
✗ …But There Are Fewer Amenities
Wherever you work out outside is less likely to have water fountains, showers, toilets, and towel service than a gym.
✓ It Improves Your Travels
Since doing reps of writing doesn’t make me stronger, I won’t repeat what I already wrote in my 9 Fun and Fast Ways to Stay Fit While Traveling to explain how working out outside can enhance your travels.
See You Out There!
If you have any questions or doubts about working out outside, leave me a comment.
And if you want some ideas and inspiration, check out:
- 7 Fun but Intense Partner Exercises for a Full-Body Workout
- How to Get a Full-Body Workout Using Rocks
- How to Turn a Hammock into a Workout Machine
- 9 Fun and Fast Tips to Stay Fit While Traveling
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About the author
I'm Chris. Canadian, husband, dad, writer, investor, athlete, and obsessed explorer of the secrets to living a never-boring, always improving, unfollowable life story.
This is a great article on an opportunity many people are missing out on! Thanks for taking the time and thought to put it together. I am a huge believer in the benefits of working out outdoors. You were able to make sense of many of the why’s I could never really explain fully. We actually have a product that was designed to be used outdoors for more options on increasing intensity of outdoor workouts yet still accomplishing the ability to work your muscles in many angles/directions. This builds the more functional/flexible muscle that most people who want to workout outdoors are after. I would love to hear your feedback-perspective on the product if you get a chance. Feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns, or comments.
Great article Chris! Working out outdoors can be so much fun. It’s a real treat for your body and mind. It has even provided beneficial in fighting depression, lowering anxiety and generally lifting your mood!
You have made some great points Chris! I feel the biggest benefit of outdoor workout is the is makes you feel good! Outdoor exercise boosts the quantity of new neurons in the dentate gyrus. This reduces anxiety and lifts mood. Such increase is much less prevalent during indoor exercises.
Loved your thoughts Chris! These days indoor gyms are not considered the ideal place because of COVID. This makes working outside an even better option.
I much prefer working out indoors at home, but I have to admit I found myself smiling reading this article. You definitely showed how fun it can be to work out outdoors. Thanks for sharing a lot of creative ideas as well!
Nowadays, it’s common for people to work out independent from the traditional gym. While it may not offer the same benefits, such as access to high-end equipment, those that are creative can still benefit from great workouts.
Loved your blog! The most important benefit of an outdoor workout, in my opinion, is that it makes you feel fantastic! Not only that outdoor exercise increases the number of new neurons, lowers anxiety, and improves mood. Thanks for sharing these amazing ideas to follow!