I want to take you back to a time, over ten years ago, when Chris and I had just recently graduated from university, moved from Toronto to the smaller city of Guelph, and started settling into life as adults. With that also came the realization that we needed to start changing our habits and move to a healthier lifestyle than we had enjoyed in our post-secondary days. So we defaulted to the solution many others find - we joined the local YMCA. Two to three days a week, when we weren't too exhausted from full-time work, we hopped in our car and drove to the gym to run in circles around a track and sweat on stationary stairways to nowhere. It should come as no surprise that within a short period of time - approximately three months - we grew tired of the routine, and although we were getting fitter, we subsequently cancelled our gym memberships.
It was around this time that we started to read different articles that discussed how much better it was to get outside for daily exercise instead of staring at concrete walls inside a stuffy gym. I recalled years of going for long walks with my mom when I was younger, meant not just as a means of exercise, but a chance to talk about our lives and what was happening with a then teenage me. I remember feeling wonderful because of the bonding time as well as the physical activity. So I wasn't surprised when we read that taking your physical activity out of the gym and into the natural environment was not only physically better for you, but also emotionally.
By using the strength and momentum within your own being instead of weight machines and stationary bikes and treadmills, you actually getting a better workout. For example, if you run or ride a bike, your body is providing the movement, and the air around you provides the resistance. As you get stronger and faster, the air provides stronger resistance, meaning your actually working harder and getting a better workout than moving on a stationary machine. But even more than the physically benefit, exercising outdoors exposes you to the elements, including vitamin D, essential to our beings, and responsible for increased emotional well-being. A study by the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry did a trial, examining the effects of exercise indoors vs in the natural environment and found that, "compared with exercising indoors, exercising in the natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date." (Source: sciencedaily.com)
Now skip ahead to today, where nearly each and every day we are out enjoying all the outdoor activity the city has to offer. Last month, I spent two straight weeks cycling the nine kilometres there and back from our home in East Vancouver to Kitsilano pool with my children for their swimming lessons. It was at this point that it dawned on me that the idea of a gym membership seems crazy - the city is, in fact, our gym.
Take Chris, for example, who rides the approximately six kilometre commute to work nearly every day on his simple, upright bicycle. He doesn't do it to work up a sweat, or push and train his body, preferring a slow, civilized pace. Even still, he's probably in the best physical shape he's been in his life, and is so much happier than when he was commuting the forty-five minutes to an hour in a car to work each day. At a recent social gathering, he actually had a couple friends he hadn't seen in a while ask if he'd been working out, because he looked very fit. It took him aback, and he admitted all it took was riding his bike to work each day - and perhaps some wholesome cooking from yours truly.
For myself, as a busy working mom, I simply don't have enough hours in the day to dedicate to going to a gym for a workout. As such, riding my bicycle to work as often as possible, as well as walking or riding with my kids to school and their various programs, provides me the ability to keep active amongst all the chaos, and stay healthy.
That being said, it is when we truly have downtime as a family that I notice how much physical activity the city provides. On those days when I was riding with the kids to the swimming pool, all three of us were essentially completing two thirds of a triathlon - the kids with their lessons and myself, swimming lengths. It was so easy to forget that we were getting a workout while we took a sunny ride along the water and then swam in an outdoor pool with the ocean and mountains as our backdrop. Travelling to the lessons wasn't a chore, it was an adventure - complete with a little entertainment from some local pirates.
I'll admit that it's been incredibly easy to get out and stay active this summer, with the sun shining and days long. But just because the temperature drops doesn't mean the outdoor activity needs to stop. This fall, when our children return to school, we will ride, walk or scoot to class each and every day, giving them get some daily exercise as well as helping them stay emotionally positive and positive, ready for a day of learning. And when the traditional wet weather returns to the Pacific Northwest, we will continue to take advantage of each and every dry(ish) day, whether for walks throughout our neighbourhood, rides along the seawall, or exploring someplace new.
It's impossible to overstate how positive outdoor activity is for a person's overall well-being. From the extra strength and resistance your own body and the elements provide, the revitalizing vitamin D that leave you feeling stress-free, and the endorphins released that reduce tension and depression, the benefits are unmatched by spending hundreds of dollars on a gym membership. Access to the city and outlying areas is free, and provides so many options - from walkways, bikeways, hiking and even outdoor pools (although not always free). So I encourage you to try leaving the car at home and take that walk or ride to work, school or for that quick trip to the store. On your next lazy Sunday, explore the local trails, be immersed in the natural or urban environment the city has to offer. It won't be long before you start feeling the physical and emotional benefits of simply stepping out your front door and using your own two feet to get your to your next destination.