Get Fitter (and Happier) than Ever
Get inspired to ditch the gym with these pros (and cons) of working out outside, then use our comprehensive guide to natural outdoor training to plan your next workout.
Working out outside is addictive.
Kim and I know this first hand. For years, we only worked out in gyms. And we liked it. We looked good and felt good and didn’t think anything was missing…
…Until we moved to places where nearby outdoor workout areas enticed us to ditch the gym and go to them from time to time.
“From time to time” soon became all the time. We got hooked. And we’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.
Why Work Out Outside vs. at the Gym
Body Benefits of Working Out Outside vs. at the Gym
✓ It Makes You Super-Natural
When we work out in nature we 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 us build more natural-looking and well-balanced bodies.
And since we don’t have machines to guide our movement, these outdoor workout exercises also improve our coordination and require a wider range of motion, which keeps us 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 we can lift by squatting or dead-lifting so we 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 are Kim and my least favorite exercises, but they felt like a necessary evil when working out at the gym.
We’ve ditched “doing abs” and have stronger cores than ever because the compound exercises work our abs at the same time as they work our 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 us our 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.
Kim wants a similarly naturally-toned, statuesque body.
Thanks to their multi-muscle-building nature, we’ve found it easier to achieve those ideals with outdoor workout exercises rather than at the gym.
✗ …But Not Mr. and Ms. Olympia Bodies
If we instead wanted to build big bulging muscles, we’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, Kim and I’ve been guilty of loading more weight than we should, looking like fools while over-exerting ourselves, then feeling like fools when we strain a muscle (normally our backs) because of it.
It’s a lot harder to do dumb stuff like that working out outside because there are no weights and we typically do movements our bodies are designed to do.
Even better, the natural movements seem to have made us more resistant to injury by increasing our mobility and the strength of our balance muscles and tendons.
✗ …But It’s Harder to Recover From Specific Injuries
If Kim or I were to seriously injure ourselves, we’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.
So, we’ve been forced to get creative, making up exercises that incorporate elastic bands (one of Kim’s 15 Favorite Travel Essentials), each other’s bodyweight, stones, logs, steps, circuits, and hills and more to spice things up.
✗ …But You Don’t Always Want to Have to Be Creative
Sometimes we’d prefer not to have to brainstorm outdoor workout exercises. We’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
We spend most of our days cooped-up, staring at computers, so the opportunity to get out and get fresh air is the vitamin we need to keep us from losing our minds.
Not to mention that we get actual Vitamin D from working out outside too.
Ample studies support our common sense that working out outside is good for our souls. 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.
Don’t Want to Venture Outside?
If the weather outside’s too frightful and inside’s too delightful, work out at home. See our guide to strength training at home for some curiosity-inducing, muscle-pumping exercises.
✓ 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 we’re kids again, going out to play.
✗ …So Sometimes It’s Hard to Get Back to Work
Because we enjoy the fresh air so much when working out outside, we tend to loiter around too long and delay getting back to work, even though we know we have to.
✓ It’s Good Practice at not Giving a Crap What Other People Think
Strangers sometimes gawk at us—some have even taken pictures!—when we do unusual outdoor workout exercises like piggybacks or beach rock throws.
This attention felt awkward at first, but pretty soon we got used to it. We even started to feel proud of it, especially when we noticed people starting to copy us.
Our lack of giving a crap about what others think about our outdoor workouts has carried over to other parts of our lives.
✓ It’s Less Competitive
There’s no “How much do you bench?” garbage with outdoor workouts.
We 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, we can be as unstylish, “unsanitary,” “unsafe,” and anti-social as we 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 we 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).
We’ve tried to do our part by putting together a comprehensive beginners’ guide to natural outdoor workouts. Check it out and leave us a comment if you have any questions.
✓ It’s Fun With Friends
In the ten-plus years Kim and I worked out inside, we never once organized a group workout with friends at the gym.
But we’ve doing group workouts regularly since we started working out outside. All but the laziest of our friends are keen to get their butts off their couches and try something new in social environment. And it’s actually fun!
See our 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 we are in the world we 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 we prefer to have for working out outside.
We can make do for a week or so in those places, but if we were to live there we’d have to go to a gym.
✓ 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’ll won’t repeat what we already wrote in our 9 Fun and Fast Ways to Stay Fit While Traveling to explain how working out outside can enhance your travels.
Get Out There!
If you have any questions or doubts about working out outside, leave us 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
Don’t Just Work Out Outside
Live outside the box.
Join Kim and I and thousands of fellow unconventionalists as we use uncomplacency, curiosity, and humor to explore and experience extraordinary rides through life:
Next Issue: 10 questions to double-check if you're going the right way.
Related Unconventional Fitness Posts
Need a Push?
Get your free ebooklet with 8 quick challenges to try today to expand your comfort zone.