By Logan Misseldine
The snow clasped around my ankles with the weight of thick spring mud. Even with the help from my walking stick my boots dragged through the shin deep snow bank. I found myself fighting to fill my lungs with air. I looked down to watch for any unexpected obstacles. As I finally felt like I was closer to the top of the logging road, I looked up and only saw the halfway point looking down at me. I felt like I had molten lead in my muscles and I desperately needed water. I couldn’t help but think, “What happened to me?” Even three years before, a hill like this wouldn’t have been a big deal. I’d still be sore afterwards but it would have taken me trying to sprint up the hill to get me to this point of exhaustion. Yet while it took much longer than it used to, I did make my way to the top. When I turned around and looked down at the winding path I’d crawled up, a sense of pride and accomplishment washed over me and the burning in my lungs felt worth it. I was inspired to return my body to a level of fitness it once had.
This may be a familiar scenario, some of you may have even discovered this while walking up a flight of stairs and found yourself breathing harder than you should have. No matter how far we’ve fallen off the wagon, all is not lost, not by a longshot. Now you can always go straight to signing up for a gym and cranking out a regime to get yourself back into shape, or you may hit the concrete jungle of sidewalks in your neighborhood and run until your legs are jelly every morning. Even if you’re a person who's heavily into the outdoors and spends a lot of time there, this could be your prefered way to jump back onto the wagon. But you’d be missing out on a huge opportunity.
The modern issues
When you look outside your window, chances are you see small islands of green surrounded by asphalt and concrete. We don’t live in as clean a world as our ancestors did. The diesel exhaust fumes you inhaled while jogging next to a busy street make that obvious. It’s also harder and harder to find seclusion to work out in peace as our towns and cities get more and more populated, and maybe you can find the ways to avoid people by utilizing a four in the morning regime, but that can be hard to keep up once something starts to really stress you out. Or maybe you’re finding yourself needing something else that the sweat covered gym machines, and crowded jogging routes just aren’t providing. It’s also nearly impossible to find a place where technology doesn’t pose a significant distraction. More and more people are becoming entrenched into sedentary lifestyles. The pull of millions of interesting television programs, mining for social media approvals, and just the pure overwhelming stress from life, is becoming so hard to push off of our shoulders. Yet it’s certainly not impossible, if you’re finding something missing from your normal gym or sidewalk work out routine, I have three words for you.
Take it outside.
So it would seem to be obvious that exercising outside would help your body. That’s not that hard to grasp so let’s assume that you are of average health and fitness. Meaning you participate in a moderately strenuous workout for half an hour, about 5 times a week. Also that you’re eating at least somewhat decently on top of that. Now let’s say you’re just looking for something more to add to your normal routine or perhaps you’re looking for something more intense, and you’re not particularly interested in the immediate indoor options. Perhaps finding a local hiking trail or starting trail running would be what you’re looking for. When you walk on even the most manicured lawns, your feet engage with the ground in a completely different way, you’re introducing an infinite amount of different variables than you’ll find in a concrete gym. When you run across a trail you tend to flex your ankles more to compensate for these natural variables, such as uneven ground or tree roots, you’re also going to expend more energy avoiding these variables than you would jogging on a stationary treadmill. In my own personal anecdote I’ve noticed that not only do I expend more energy but I also will tend to work out for longer. If I’m running on a treadmill there is no checkpoint that I physically have to travel to, I’m standing in the same spot in a concrete box with my car sitting maybe 50 yards away. When I go on a hike or a trail run, especially one that loops, I want to complete that loop or reach a specific point. If I give up before I reach a certain landmark I’ll feel like I didn’t do enough. Whereas In my head it only makes sense to complete the loop, if I were to turn back when only 3/4 the way I’d end up doing more than I would if I had just finished the task at hand. You’ll increase the amount of vitamin D you absorb into your body which improves a host of functions for your body including, absorption of vitamin D and facilitating normal immune system functions. It’s also free! Just find your local public trail or park and you’ll have plenty of space to take advantage of all these benefits.
You often find someone in your Facebook friends that will eventually share a post with something along the lines of, “Nature is my therapy” There is truth in this, I also personally agree with this statement, corny as it may have become. Based off of what we’ve already covered here, and knowing that exercise in general reduces stress, it only makes sense that if exercising outdoors creates a more strenuous workout, then you’ll blow off even more steam. This in turn can reduce your anxiety, help fend off depression, and even possibly improve your self esteem. Sleeping outdoors can also help your mental and emotional health by resetting your circadian rhythm, as you’ll be isolated from artificial light and will rely on the original light source, the sun. Anecdotally in my outdoor endeavors it has helped me to face myself and my issues with a realistic perspective. When I’m fully engaged with hiking up a mountain and pushing my body to it’s limit, I am forced to focus on the task at hand which pulls me out of the mental rut I may have put myself into, and look back at that scenario with a clearer mind.
How to get into it
Ok, say now I’ve convinced you that you should get outside more, and other than your backyard or the local playground you don’t have a clue of where to go. Chances are there’s an outdoor space not too far from you. You don’t always have to travel outside of the city limits to get the benefits of outdoor recreation. As much as technology can be a distraction it can also be the answer in this situation, just open up your internet browser and look up parks and bike trails in your immediate vicinity. The little time I spent in South Carolina I found a bike path that carved straight through the town and was enclosed with gorgeous old trees that captured my wonder the same as any dirt trail. As well as holding all sorts of bird/wildlife watching opportunities including a resident owl. Be creative as well and think outside the box sometimes there are kayak worthy creeks that flow a shorter drive to you than the nearest trail. Where I live now there are miles and miles of creeks that flow in and out of Lake Erie that I can explore. If you’re looking to prepare for a backpacking trip, or to just do more hiking, make sure you research the kinds of State and Federal public lands that are near you, even if it’s just a small parcel. These can be the best way to prepare your body for a trip because it’s difficult to simulate the kinds of motions you do climbing up steep foothills anywhere else but on steep hills. There’s also less people using these spaces since they're not as well known, if seclusion is something you’re looking for then this can fit you perfectly. Especially if you do your research and discover a hard to find parcel. Check with your state agencies for a list of managed lands and waters that are open for recreation, also double check the regulations and safety guidelines. Do your homework and the results may surprise you.
What are you going to try?
Now that I’ve gone through the scenarios, shown you the physical benefits, and explained how it can help your mental and emotional health, the ball is in your court. I’ll tell you that even if you can only get to the playground around the block with only one tree in it, that can still give you many of these benefits that I’ve illustrated. It doesn’t take driving hours away from home to find a space wild enough for you to take advantage of nature’s bounty. There have been many times where I haven’t been able to get to my favorite State Forests but I’ve been able to make due with the bike trails and local parks that are within my reach. As with anything in life, you need to improvise and adapt into your personal limitations, don’t be overwhelmed by what you don’t know. Take finding these opportunities as part of the challenge. Get out there and find what works for you. Oftentimes it only takes a little bit of effort to find what you’re looking for.