Why You Should Ditch the Gym to Work Out Outside

How working out outside benefits your fitness, health, and happiness in ways the gym can't, but also what its disadvantages are versus the gym.

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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.

Supernatural Kim doing resistance band training on stairs
Strap yourself in like Kim here and get ready to be motivated to try working out outside. Photo by Saul Sauza.

Body Benefits of Working Out Outside vs. at the Gym

βœ“ 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.

Chris lifting a big rock at the beach.
Instead of barbells, we have to find big rocks if we want to lift heavy when working out outside.

βœ— …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.

Kim doing her favorite toes-to-bar exercise at an outdoor workout area in Valencia, Spain.
Kim’s favorite “ab” exercise, toes-to-bar, also works her upper body.

βœ“ 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.

Not outside.

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.

I still do some ab-intense exercises like L-sits, hanging leg-lifts, and dragonflies, but if you try them you’ll see that, unlike planks and crunches, they work a lot more than just your abs.

Kim showing her calluses in front of her face
Kim showing off the calluses she’s earned for outdoor workouts.

βœ— …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.

βœ“ 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.

βœ— …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.

Chris doing a shoulder stand in Tulum, Mexico.
Chris doing a kind of dangerous move, but still not as dangerous as stupid stuff he did in the gym.

βœ“ 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.

βœ— …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

βœ“ 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.

So, I’ve been forced to get creative, making up exercises that incorporate elastic bands, my wife’s bodyweight, stones, logs, steps, circuits, and hills and more to spice things up.

Chris wondering what to do for his outdoor workout, scratching his head.
Chris seems to be having a hard time deciding what kind of outdoor workout he wants to do.

βœ— …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.

Chris dead hang skin the cat exercise on rings in Vancouver.
Not once do we go out to workout and come back in a worse mood.

βœ“ It Improves Your General Well-Being

Working out outside had been a big boost to the workout-life balance of my fitness lifestyle.

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.

Chris doing a hill sprint in Medellin, Colombia.
Doing hill sprints in the high heat and humidity of Medellin, Colombia.

βœ“ 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.

And I’m not crazy. Studies show that getting cold and uncomfortable can boost your metabolism, boost our mood (…once you’re warm and dry again), and improve your immune system.

βœ— …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.

Piggy back working out outdoors in Vancouver
When was the last time you piggy-backed a friend? See 7 more fun but intense partner exercises to try.

βœ“ 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.

βœ— …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.

βœ“ It’s Good Practice at not Giving a Crap What Other People Think

Strangers sometimes gawk at meβ€”some have even taken pictures!β€”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.

βœ“ 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.

Kim working out in Bangkok
In Bangkok, we planned to work out at a local outdoor gym. It turned out to be a highlight of our stay!

βœ— …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.

Bonus Benefits

Chris' choice of clothing while doing single left deadlifts are shorts and shoes.
Chris is staying cool with no shirt and one of his three go-to shorts while doing single leg deadlifts with a rock.

βœ“ 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.

βœ“ 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.

βœ— …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.

Working out outside with friends at Savary Island
A group workout with friends on the tidal flats of Savary Island.

βœ“ 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.

βœ“ It Saves Money

If anything, you’re getting the most out of your tax dollars when you work out outside.

βœ— …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.

Chris doing a workout outside in a pool
When it’s really hot out, you can even do an outdoor workout in the pool.

βœ“ 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.

βœ— …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.

βœ“ 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.

βœ— …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.

Kim doing a group workout at Kits Beach in Vancouver
Making new friends at an outdoor workout in Vancouver, Canada.

βœ“ 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:

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About the author

πŸ‘‹ I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

  1. Chad Lorenson Avatar
    Chad Lorenson

    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.

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Thanks Chad. I’ll check it out!

  2. Paul Burton Avatar
    Paul Burton

    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!

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Yep. All the best with your outdoor fitness and playground business, Paul.

  3. Jacob Noah Avatar
    Jacob Noah

    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.

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      So as well as building bigger muscles we build bigger dentate gyruses when we work out outside? Great. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Iris Black Avatar
    Iris Black

    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.

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Indeed. Hopefully the pandemic has encouraged more people to keep up their outdoor workouts even after indoor gyms open. Thanks, Iris.

  5. Kim Parsons Avatar
    Kim Parsons

    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!

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Thanks Kim. I see you linked to a website about aerobic steppers. Give logs and ledges a try. They’re a “step up” from the indoor equipment!

  6. Rob S. Avatar
    Rob S.

    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.

    1. Chris Avatar
      Chris

      Yeah… glad you echo our thoughts, Rob.

  7. Steve Gallagher Avatar
    Steve Gallagher

    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!

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