I've recently been exercising outdoors far, far more than I ever have in my life. As a matter of fact, these days I’m in the gym about an average of once every two to three weeks. This stands in pretty stark contrast to the years when I was a bodybuilder, spending 1.5-2 hours in the morning pumping iron at the gym, typically followed by another visit to the gym later in the afternoon or early evening, or the years when I was a personal trainer spending about 5am until 9pm most days at the gym.
So yeah, I've been a gym rat before.
And don’t get me wrong: if the only thing that keeps you physically active, exercising, and motivated to train or live healthy is a gym membership and a regular visit to your health club, then that’s far, far better than laying on the couch eating twinkies and watching Game of Thrones.
But at the same time, the reason I've personally begun avoiding the gym is not simply because it's summer and the weather is nice or because I'm training for outdoors, muddy obstacle races. Instead, I've become increasingly aware that there are some big problems with gyms and some big benefits to being outdoors that you’re going to discover in this article.
Keep reading, because you're going to learn about four problems with health clubs, gyms and tight indoor spaces where lots of people are exercising, and you’re also going to learn about the potent fixes that nature can provide. Finally, rather than keep you hanging in desperation about where you're going to exercise, I'll also give you plenty of tips to exercise outdoors, no matter where you live.
Scary Fact #1: Machines
In my article “How to Use Weightlifting Machines”, I talk about how to use several popular machines at the gym. But rather than taking this as a blatant endorsement by me to use weight machines, I'd rather you consider it as advice for weightlifting beginners who need the guidance of a machine to move through a specific range-of-motion without risk of injury.
Unfortunately, once you're out of the realm of lifting light weights and doing very basic exercise, machines are not your best bet. Just because an exercise machine is at a gym or health club does not mean it’s safe or designed with proper biomechanics, and while poor form on any machine can turn an otherwise safe move into a risky activity, there are some machines that you should completely avoid, even if you can do them with good form.
In no particular order, the machines you should absolutely avoid at the gym are:
- Machine Side Raise
- Machine Abductor (legs out)
- Machine Adductor (legs in)
- Cable Pulldowns Behind Your Neck
- Seated Abdominal Rotation Machine
- Seated Crunch Machine
- Smith Machine Presses or Squats
For more details on why I'm not a fan of these machines at all, and to get alternatives to these machines, read my article “Top 7 Exercises To Avoid”.
In my opinion, unless you're a complete beginner, the only time you should really be using weight machines is for something like a Doug Mcguff Body By Science-esque extremely super slow workout, which I'll occasionally do if I'm stuck at hotel with no free weights and I want a good resistance training routine. You can learn why I favor this approach in the podcast “Does Weight Training Count As Cardio”.
Scary Fact #2: Spinning
I used to be a “spin nazi”.
I taught spin classes nearly every day at my local gym, and each class was structured with specific, focused intervals designed to enhance aerobic or anaerobic energy systems, such as 5×5 minutes at tempo pace and RPM of 90 with an increase of heart rate by 3-5 beats for each successive 5 minutes, and 2.5 minute recovery periods; or a ladder of 10 seconds, 20 seconds and 30 seconds at 120RPM with 60 second recoveries after each. Most of the attendees were triathletes, cyclists or athletes, and we didn't do anything that remotely resembled the dance-class nature of many spin classes these days.
In contrast, the average spin class at a gym involves a high number of squats, hovers, push-ups, gyrations, hip thrusts, and other ridiculous dance moves that are not meant to be performed while pedaling a bicycle. These can not only put your shoulders and knees at a very high risk of injury, but also train energy systems that just aren't very efficient to train on a bike. In other words, if you want to do push-ups and squats, then get off the bike to do them.
No indoor cycling certification programs condone this type of activity, but these methods are still used by certified instructors at many health clubs. If your spinning class makes you feel as though you can’t simply sit and pedal correctly for more than 15, 30, or even 60 seconds without having to flap your arms like a muppet or jump up and down while singing the chorus to an Abba song set to techno, you should find a new class. Click here to see two shocking videos that show the type of spinning classes to avoid.
Scary Fact #3: Smoothie Bars
News flash: just because a food is sold at a health club does not mean it’s healthy. The average protein bar contains many unhealthy ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, fractionated palm kernel oil, artificial sweeteners, wheat, rice, or other refined sugars, and high amounts of gut-wrenching sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol.
Many of the smoothies prepared and sold at a gym are made from sugar concentrates combined with highly processed protein powders and vegetable oils – and are typically dumped into a 20-24oz cup that can let you suck down 600-1,000 calories in just a few minutes. So a dutiful gym-goer can slave away on a treadmill for an hour, then grab a smoothie on their way out the door that contains nearly twice the calories they actually burned during the workout.
If you need to grab a smoothie, then look for minimal ingredients, such as water, nut butter, protein powder and a banana (as opposed to oodles of fruit concentrate and sugar). If you need a protein bar, choose one with minimal ingredients (such as fruits and nuts), raw nuts and seeds, or hypo-allergenic carbs such rice crisps rather than wheat or soy. And only use these foods as a quick snack to tide you over until you can get a real meal, or to keep you from “bonking” at the gym, and not as a staple or a stand-by in your diet.
Scary Fact #4: Pollution
OK, this next one is a biggie. I hope you're sitting down.
Recent studies (a full list is provided at the end of this article) have highlighted the fact that there are concerningly high levels of carcinogens in the air of the average fitness center, as well as significant amounts of harmful bacteria on the surfaces of fitness equipment such as treadmills and weight training machines.
I’ve addressed the problem with air pollution in my article “Is Exercising in Pollution Bad For You?”, and the takeaway message from that article is that, compared to skipping exercise altogether, it’s still better to exercise even if you’re in a polluted area. But at the same time, the CDC, the EPA, and plenty of medical journals have found that exposure to air pollutants in urban areas is linked to higher rates of asthma and abnormal heart rhythms, and increases your risk of death from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, and all causes. What this means is that if you actually do have the choice between, say, exercising in your backyard or a nearby park or forest versus exercising in the gym, you’d be far better off with the former.
And then there’s recent data showing that the indoor air quality in some fitness centers may be just as harmful to health as the air pollutants in urban areas. For example, one study last year in the journal Building and Environment found unacceptably high levels of carbon dioxide, formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particle pollution in multiple indoor fitness centers.
Next, there’s carbon dioxide (CO2). Since expiration releases CO2, its levels significantly rise when there are lots of people huffing and puffing in a room, especially if that room is poorly ventilated. So, the more folks you cram into an indoor space running on treadmills, rowing, riding bikes, lifting weights, and jumping around, the worse the quality of air in that space. This is why I’m a bigger fan of home gyms than commercial gyms, and also a fan of getting in and out of a gym quickly by utilizing a strategy such as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
One study showed the highest levels of CO2 in an interior room used for indoor cycling spin classes. I’m not saying that these CO2 levels are toxic and going to kill you, but they’re not completely harmless either. This is all the more concerning when you consider the fact that most building owners (gyms often lease from building owners) save money by recycling used air instead of heating or cooling fresh air from outside.
And then there’s the issue with mold. My friend Dave Asprey just released a documentary called “Moldy,” about hidden sources of environmental mold that deleteriously affect the health of more than 100 million people worldwide. Indoor mold can be even more damaging than well-known pollutants such as asbestos and lead, and unfortunately, mold is common in gyms, locker rooms, swimming pool areas, and saunas because they are full of bacteria and moist air. These inhaled mold toxins can be just as harmful as mold that you eat from a piece of old food.
I’ve worked at plenty of gyms and health clubs and know for a fact that the cleaning procedures at many, many facilities are less than stellar, and that mold is often ignored or left to hang out for long periods of time (a good test for the cleanliness of your gym is to leave a small piece of chewed gum in a corner, ledge, crack, space, etc., and see how many days it takes to disappear—you’d be shocked!) So, if your gym or the locker room area in your health club is somewhat humid, smells like sweaty socks, or has frequent puddles or pools of water that are there throughout the day, there are likely mold and fungus issues.
Next, there’s the problem with something called “particulate matter” in indoor spaces such as gyms. Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets such as nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust, and they can come from rubber mats, metal plates, and dumbbells banging together, and even dead pieces of skin from other people working out (ew!). The problem is that these particles are small enough to pass through your nasal cavities and enter your lungs, especially when you’re breathing hard in an indoor exercise environment.
Unfortunately, over a quarter of the gyms in the study I mentioned earlier exceed the indoor limit for these kind of particles. It is true that HEPA air filters and a good gym cleaning protocol can help out quite a bit in this situation, unless the cleaners are made of toxic chemicals, which can then enter the air and get recirculated. Even school gymnasiums have been found to contain significantly high levels of particulate matter, such as dust, soil, and bacteria that can trigger immune, asthmatic and allergic responses in susceptible children.
Next is the issue of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Exposure to VOCs in high levels can cause skin irritation, neurotoxicity, and hepatotoxicity (toxicity of the liver). The scary fact is that over eighty percent of the gyms that have been studied exceed the acceptable level of unsafe VOCs, which include compounds such as formaldehyde, fire retardants, acetone, and other substances that off gas from carpeting, furniture, cleaners, paint, among others. Levels of VOCs tend to be higher in gyms with newer equipment, and also in spaces that have been recently cleaned (due to the cleaning chemicals used).
Finally, there are all those synthetic fragrances, colognes, and deodorants that your fellow gym-goers have plastered all over their bodies and that are filling the air around you. I address these type of hormonal and endocrine disruptors in the episode on estrogen dominance, but these can also be a serious issue that, frustratingly, can be out of your control unless you have the courage to ask the woman running on the treadmill next to you to slather on a bit less perfume.
What To Do Instead Of Hitting The Gym
There’s no doubt that going to the gym is a great way to stay fit and to get motivated. Even if you have a home gym (which I also do), a health club or gym offers a variety of equipment, classes, personal trainers, and people to inspire and teach you that you just won’t be able to replicate at home. Plus, gyms often have perks such as child care, a spa or sauna, personal trainers, contests and competitions, and other helpful ways to help you get fitter faster or stay motivated.
In other words, don't stop going to the gym if that's all you're able to do to get yourself motivated to be fit. And don't stop going to the gym if a gym is your job (e.g. you're a personal trainer). But perhaps you could print this article and give it to your gym owner. That's a thought.
For example, in my podcast episode, “Forest Bathing, Sleep Hacking, Cell Phones & Water: The Underground Guide To Lowering Cortisol When Nothing Else Seems To Be Working,” my guest Evan Brand and I discuss the amazing research that shows that something as simple as spending time in the trees, walking in forests, exercising on nature trails, and hiking outdoors exposes you to tiny particles and phytochemicals that plants release, and this in turn helps decrease salivary cortisol, depression, and anger.
Also, in the article “How To Use Cold Weather To Lose Weight“, you learn that stepping outside the constant comfort of air conditioning and heaters, and instead getting frequent exposure to temperature fluctuations such as cold air, snow, rain, sun, heat, and other environmental variables can increase stress resilience, burn more calories, increase cardiovascular performance, and get you more fit quickly.
Now, a new article, “Natural environments, ancestral diets, and microbial ecology: is there a modern “paleo-deficit disorder”?” highlights research from as early as the 1960s, which shows that early-life experience with microbiota and other bacteria found in outdoor situations, along with environmental stress, can actually positively influence longevity and health outcomes. The author recognized the co-evolutionary relationship between microbiota and the human host. The article points out the fact that there is lower health, more anxiety and depression, and increased incidence of immune-related disease in developed nations that have become too sanitized—specifically too sanitized with respect to not being outside around dirt, trees, animals, and other natural areas of “microbial ecology” (which, by the way, is far different than manmade bacteria and synthetic toxins and chemicals in gyms.
In a 2010 Japanese study of shinrin-yoku (defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing”), researchers found that elements of the environment, such as the odor of wood, the sound of running stream water, and the scenery of the forest, can provide relaxation and reduce stress, and those taking part in the study experienced lower levels of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.
This should all really come as no surprise. Scientists have long known that sunlight can lower depression, especially depression from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). A 2007 study from the University of Essex found that something as simple as a walk in the countryside reduces depression in 71% of participants. These same researchers found that nature therapy, also known as “ecotherapy,” and spending as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, can improve mood, self-esteem, and motivation.
Other health care professionals are also finding that being in a natural environment has numerous benefits for kids, and can combat the obesity, anxiety, depression, and other health issues that arise with “nature-deficit disorder.” For example, in an article at WebMD, nurse Stacy Bosch of the Clark County School District in Nevada is cited as seeing many students who are overweight or have type-2 diabetes, and she notes that, more often than not, these kids spend very little time outside. To get the kids and their parents away from the TV or computer and increase their physical activity can help control weight and blood sugar, Bosch writes a prescription for the entire family to go to one into nature areas and simply take a walk.
How to Exercise Outdoors
So now that you know that constantly being indoors in a gym may not be the best thing for your health, and that being outdoors in nature provides you with a myriad of benefits, what are some ways you can start exercising outdoors? Here are a five quick tips:
1. Walk More
Consider walking the kids to school or the bus stop in the morning, hoofing it to pick up a bag of groceries or run errands at lunchtime, and walking the dog or taking a stroll after dinner each evening. Want to step it up a notch? Grab a kettlebell, dumbbell, sandbag, heavy backpack, or other weight and challenge yourself to walk 1, 2, or 3 miles (Just like I have my “Kettlebell Yoga“, I also have my “Kettlebell Walks”)
2. Find A Park
Anytime I’m traveling, I use Google maps “find nearby” function to find the nearest local park where I can go do dips and push-ups on park benches, jog or run on the park trails, do yoga in a quiet grassy area, or even do skips, hops, bounds, and sprints on a wide open section of grass.
3. Build A Backyard Gym
In my article “Strongman Workouts for Fat Loss, Muscle Gain, and Performance,” I give you plenty of backyard and outdoor gym ideas, including:
-Make A Sandbag: I made my sandbag in about 30 minutes by purchasing a couple military duffel bags off Amazon, then putting pea gravel into plastic contractor bags, and putting the gravel-filled plastic bags into the duffel bags. Here are some good sandbag instructions. Or you can buy pre-made sandbags from a website like Onnit.
-Get A Tire: I pulled into my local tire store and asked them if they had any old heavy tires they didn't need anymore. They gave me four of them for free, and even offered to help toss them into the back of the pickup truck for me! Afterwards, I realized that a true Strongman probably would have put the tires into the truck himself.
-Hunt Down A Tree: Whenever I go on a hike, I make it a goal to find at least one log and carry it for a little while, either overhead or clutched in my arms or on my shoulders. But the past couple times, I’ve taken the heavy logs home so that I have them in my garage for easy access.
-Find A Rock: My nearby river has some nice big rocks that I also took home to my yard. These kind-of-big river rocks are smooth and don’t give you as many scrapes and cuts as some of the rougher varieties.
-Push A Car: Have a manual car or truck, and a driveway or access to a big empty parking lot? Simply put your vehicle into neutral and get ready for the workout of your life.
Want even more? Check out my Cropfit newsletter, in which I talk about how a nineteenth-century farmer would be pushing, pulling, lifting, hoisting, bending, twisting, and moving all day long. While you may not have a farm, and you may not have a desire to build a giant wooden barn, you can certainly inject a little extra fitness in your daily routine with activities such as:
-Going to your local hardware store, buying a rope, attaching it to a tire or cinder block, and practicing dragging an object in your driveway or backyard.
-Planting a small patio garden and going outside (moving!) to water, pick, plant, and care for your plants.
-Going to a park that has a safe and sturdy wooden fence and climbing over fences, under fences, or even balancing on top of fences.
-Finding a heavy river rock and carrying it up or down a hill, or (more practically) building a wall, firepit, gardening area, etc. in your backyard with large rocks.
You get the idea. Last tip? Listen to my podcast interview with Zach Even-Esh, where he talks about even more “underground” ways to get fit outside without using standard gym equipment.
Hiking is also a great sport to do with friends or family, since it generally allows you to talk and explore while you’re doing it. With a little research about your local area, you can often find short hikes that offer good scenery without too much difficulty or special equipment. More difficult hikes with weight packs, boulder scaling, elevation training masks and even stops to do burpees or to carry heavy rocks or logs can provide you with an extreme fitness challenge that’s just as tough as any intense class you might take at a gym.
5. Find Water
From swimming to kayaking and canoeing to paddleboarding, swimming in rivers, lakes, or the ocean gives you the benefits of cold thermogenesis, a non-weight bearing form of exercise, and exposure to even more elements of nature – without all the chlorine and mold issues I talked about earlier. You can easily combine workouts that involve sprints, burpees, push-ups, mountain climbers, lunges, and squats can easily with forays into the water for freestyle and underwater swimming.
Again, I must emphasize that if all you have access to is a gym, then that's usually better than nothing.
But it's very, very rare that I run into a situation where I simply can't get fit unless I enter the hallowed doors of a health club. The world and the great outdoors can be your gym, and your natural movement skills will progress by leaps and bounds once you realize this.
I encourage you to figure out how you can hack your environment to make that switch happen, and to leave your comments, questions and feedback below!