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Five Outdoor Activities That Combine Fitness and Fun

Young woman kayaking in ocean

You started summer with a body as beach-ready as you could get it, but by mid-summer your fitness routine has fizzled, abandon in favor of BBQ and margaritas. Mid-season muffin tops happen to the best of us. It’s hard to find the motivation to do an indoor workout session when both sun and relaxation are calling to you. But your fitness routine may still stand a chance if you build it around the things you actually enjoy doing instead of the things you thought you should be doing.

“The best exercise is the one you actually get out and do,” says Angela Smith, M.D., a professor and former president of the American College of Sports Medicine. Besides frequently lecturing and writing about exercise and injury prevention, the Bryn Mawr resident has been a competitive figure skater for many years, which means she knows something about sticking with a fitness routine. So often, she says, people limit themselves to the same old boring workouts, then stop when it isn’t fun.

“Fitness should be fun, which is often the case with many outdoor activities,” says Smith. Sports like rock climbing, paddle boarding, kayaking, mountain biking, and hiking pack plenty of fitness benefits in appealing packages. And you don’t have to kill yourself to get results. “These outdoor sports work muscles you normally don’t tap into at the gym,” says New Jersey-based exercise physiologist Neal Pire. “Barbells, dumbbells, pull up bars, and ropes can’t really activate the range of muscle systems some of these sports can.”

For instance, Pire says, spinning or running on a treadmill will work major muscle groups in the legs, but activities like rock climbing work muscle groups throughout your entire body, all while building up your strength. “And because you’re using so much muscle mass, your cardiovascular system goes up and down and up and down.” This is why he advises anyone trying a new sport like rock climbing to proceed with caution because they can easily wear themselves out before they recognize the onset of fatigue.

Hiking woman“If you’re new to an activity, you should start slow and build slow,” says Professor Bill Roberts, M.D., with the University of Minnesota’s program in sports medicine. “Focus on learning to do a new sport correctly and you’ll reduce your risk of injury.” When done right, cross-training with sports like mountain biking and kayaking will help you tap into energy reserves you never knew you had. “When you’re moving around outside, the scenery is constantly changing around you which is a great motivator to keep moving,” says Roberts. And adding variety to your fitness routine helps prevent overuse injuries and boost your overall fitness level.

“The idea behind cross-training is to do something that hits your entire body, pushes it cardiovascuarly, requires mobility, and taps into a range of muscle systems,” says Pire. Mixing up your workouts keeps things interesting and helps you stick with it. And taking up an unfamiliar activity moves your brain out of autopilot, which is a good thing. “If you aren’t mindful, or engaged mentally, as you do something that requires your balance, you’re going to fall. You need to be aware of where you’re stepping, for instance, so your focus is different.”

And don’t worry about maintaining a high-effort level as you adapt to new outdoor activities. “People get hung up on trying to sweat every time they exercise, and that  isn’t really necessary,” says Roberts. “While breaking a sweat at least three times a week is good for your heart, just regularly getting out and moving at any pace is what you should be aiming for.”

So don’t be afraid to add some fun outdoor sports to your exercise routine. You’ll benefit from the cross-training, and the variety will motivate you to keep exercising when another pitcher of margaritas comes calling. You may even find you want to hit the slopes or strap on the ice skates when the winter freeze is upon us.

Try these five heart-pumping activities to challenge your body and enjoy the outdoors:

 

Young female rock climber on a cliffRock Climbing

Fitness benefits: This total-body workout focuses on the arms and shoulders and works the muscles in your feet, legs, and core. Just remember to take your time. “You’re going to have to develop your hand, arm, and upper-body strength to climb well,” says Pire. Rock climbing burns about 550 calories per hour.

Exercises it compliments: Rock climbing is a great way to strengthen the upper body for runners, cyclists, and skaters looking to avoid weights.

How to get started: Rock climbing gear (climbing shoes, rope, carabiners, a harness, webbing, and a helmet) can be expensive, so this is one outdoor activity that’s best to start indoors. “At a rock climbing gym, you’re usually wearing straps and have a safety net, so it’s a great environment to learn how to work the muscles you’ll be working outdoors.”

Essential gear: Scarpa Vapor V

As with ballerina slippers and 5-inch heels, climbing shoes seem like they were solely invented to torture women’s feet. The downturned soles and foot-pinching fit that makes climbing shoes so great at enabling the precise placement of your feet onto tiny edges can also torture extremities. These Italian-crafted booties strike the perfect balance, matching a slightly curved arch with an asymmetrical, foot-hugging design that cradles the bottom and sides of the foot. $159

 

Mountain biking

Fitness benefits: Mountain biking works the heart harder than just about any other sport, making you leaner and fitter all over. The best rides often navigate challenging terrain, making your body work harder than you realize. Climbing up scenic trails and then powering down the other side strengthens your core, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. And riding at a moderate pace can burn 500 to 600 calories per hour.

Exercises it compliments: Navigating rough terrain on a mountain bike improves stamina and coordination, because you are using numerous parts of your body. “You tend to be up on your hands and feet more when you’re mountain biking,” says Pire. He adds that staying hunched over your bike for too long can lead to muscle imbalances. Strength training, rowing, and yoga are great activities to fill in the gaps of your full-body workout.

How to get started: You need a bike, a helmet, and a trail. Just make sure the bike fits you properly because that makes it easier to control and will help prevent injury. A bike store can get you fitted. Don’t forget to always wear a helmet and stick to trails that match your experience level.

Essential gear: Tifosi Wisp sunglasses

With so many things that come flying at you when you’re mountain biking, the best rule of thumb is to protect yourself. Along with wearing a helmet, this means shielding your eyes with a rugged pair of shades. The lightweight Tifosi Wisp provide a comfortable fit with a clear view of the action via the three interchangeable lenses—clear, amber, and dark gray—that can be switched in and out to suit your riding conditions. $69

 

KayakingAthletic young woman paddling on lake in summer

Fitness benefits: Kayaking tones your shoulders, abs, arms, and back while burning an average of 340 calories per hour. When done right, kayaking taps into your ab muscles as you twist your torso during each stroke. And using a kayak to get up close and personal with all the stunning areas of lakes
or rivers you’ve never seen before will keep you motivated to power on.

How to get started: Kayaks are expensive, so it’s a good idea to start out by renting one and springing for some lessons while you’re at it, especially if you’re looking to kayak on a river. Lessons will teach you proper stroke technique as well as how to recover if and when your kayak capsizes.

Exercises it compliments: “Kayaking builds rotational strength and balance, making it a great complimentary activity to something like rock climbing or tennis,” says Smith.

Essential gear: Mountain Hardwear River Gorge Long-Sleeve

Kayaking across a lake on a hot summer day is recipe for a painful burn and some weathered skin. And since water and sunscreen go together like toothpaste and orange juice, a sunblocking shirt is your best defense against potential skin damage. This long-sleeve T offers UPF 50 protection in a stylish half-zip package that feels soft, dries quickly, and is tough enough to handle the most intense outing. It even has a pocket on the side to hold your keys and credit card. $50

 

Paddle boarding

Fitness benefits: The hardest part of paddle boarding is standing up, but after that, staying balanced on the board is a great core workout. “As you stand on a paddleboard, your leg muscles and trunk muscles are constantly firing and readjusting to keep you upright,” says Roberts. “Along with building strength, that continuous fire and release activity builds balance.” The calorie burn from paddle boarding ranges from 500 to 700 calories per hour depending on the choppiness of the water and your ability to stay on the board.

Exercises it compliments: Paddle boarding is low-impact and all about balance, making it an excellent companion to yoga. Since the board is unstable, you have to really engage your core to maintain proper form when you do yoga on a paddle board. It’s also a great recuperative activity. “Doctors often recommend paddle boarding to patients after knee surgery to help regain your body’s proprioceptive sense and balance,” says Roberts.

How to get started: Get an oversize board and a paddle and head to the nearest body of water. But don’t get too cocky. “Paddleboarding looks easy when you’ve mastered it, but there’s a lot of work going on there,” says Pire. “It requires endurance in your back, hips, and legs and can be challenging, depending on how choppy the water is.”

Essential gear: Oiselle Marty Bikini

When you’re doing anything athletic in a swimsuit, the last thing you need to worry about is an unexpected wardrobe malfunction. You want something built to move when you do and lock everything firmly into place. This racer-back from Oiselle does the job, with UPF 50+ fabric that is designed to keep up with you on the paddle board or just about any other water sport. $110

Oiselle Marty Bikini

 

Hiking

Fitness benefits: A 1-hour hike burns up to 400 calories while working the glutes, calves, and quads, and engaging the abs for balance. Hiking can also bring you face-to-face with some of the most amazing scenery in the area. Just keep in mind that the best views are found at the top of the mountain, not the bottom. “Hiking up a steep hill or a mountain pass can work your body pretty hard, but that’s just half of your workout. Coming back down the other side can be very challenging on the legs, as they are working to decelerate you down the incline,” says Pire.

Exercises it compliments: Since hiking is primarily a lower-body activity, adding strength training, rowing, and swimming are good activities to balance out your fitness routine.

How to get started: You can get pretty far on a day trip with a pair of comfortable yet rugged shoes, a water bottle, and a well-marked trail map of where you’re going. The website trails.com can help you find some good hikes in your area. Just keep your eyes and mind ahead of you while maintaining a pace that feels comfortable. And know when to turn around and go back.

Essential gear: Saucony Peregrine 6

When it comes to hiking, a pound on your feet is equivalent to five on your back. That’s why bulky hiking shoes are overkill for all but the most intense day hikes. Unless you need ankle support and extra protection underfoot, you’re better off wearing a pair of light yet durable trail running shoes like the Saucony Peregrines. These low-slung dirt devils protect and cushion your feet while still offering fantastic traction on all surfaces. $120

 

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