Summer is the perfect time of year to try some new low-cost outdoor exercise that you can do in your own back yard. No expensive equipment or gym memberships required!
There are a number of low-cost outdoor exercises you can choose from to help you get healthy in body and mind.
With all the media attention, medical research and scientific studies, most people know by now that physical exercise is essential to maintaining health. Paired with a healthful diet and lifestyle, exercise often is the key to lasting good health and longevity. When we know that daily exercise can lower the risk of heart disease, many cancers, high blood pressure, stroke, weight gain, osteoporosis, depression and more, it’s amazing everyone doesn’t make it a top priority.
But, with our hectic schedules, long work hours and so many available sedentary leisure activities, exercise sometimes can get short shrift. When asked, Americans’ main excuses for not working out include expense and lack of time. And yes, gym memberships, pricey equipment, rigid class schedules and more can undermine our best efforts to stay fit. But, summer is the time of year you want to look and feel your best. Here are a few types of exercise you can do out in the summer sun that don’t require much equipment, much less a membership to the gym. So, combine your enjoyment of the season, the beauty of the great outdoors and your desire to stay fit and healthy, and try out some new ways of working out.
“Lack of flexibility is just an excuse for someone who doesn’t know what yoga’s about.”
— Hansa Knox Johnson
As a system, Pilates really fits in with the natural health frame of mind: It’s about nurturing the body and its movements from the inside out, says Kevin A. Bowen, executive director and chief executive officer of the Pilates Method Alliance. “Basically, Pilates is about whole-body health; exercising in such a way that it produces functional strength and flexibility,” he says. Pilates founder Joseph H. Pilates developed the program as an exercise technique that required complete control of the mind, body and spirit.
The son of a gymnast father and natural health crusading mother, Joseph Pilates was born and raised in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1926. During World War I, Pilates and his brothers, acrobatic performers in England at the time, were placed in an internment camp because they were German. There, Pilates developed his mat program—which he dubbed “contrology”—so he could work out inside the barracks. He taught others he was living with, and when the Spanish influenza pandemic swept through Europe, Pilates and his exercise partners stayed healthy. Noticing this, British officials later released Pilates from the internment camp and used his mat system to help rehabilitate young, injured soldiers.
Pilates, as the technique later came to be called, is excellent as a method of injury recovery because it tones and strengthens the muscles, but doesn’t require impact or stress on the joints. A system of controlled movements, Pilates relies on the body’s own natural resistance for strength training. Focusing mainly on increasing strength in the body’s “core”—the stomach and torso—and increasing flexibility, these simple exercises can be personalized into any length and type of routine, and generally can be done without expensive equipment (although Pilates machines with additional resistance are on the market). “The point is if you can maintain your flexibility and core strength throughout your life, it actually increases your enjoyment of being alive because you can move well,” Bowen says.
While learning the exercises from Pilates’ book, Return to Life Through Contrology (Christopher Publishing House, 1960) or other trustworthy Pilates publications or videos allows you to do Pilates on your own, Bowen recommends participating in at least one class or private lesson with a certified Pilates instructor to get some feedback on your form. “You can’t necessarily learn without someone correcting your form,” Bowen says. “Incorrect movement will not produce the results that you want for any exercise endeavor.”
Pilates does burn calories and build lean muscle, but it was never intended by its creator to be used as a fat-burning tool, Bowen says. Aerobic activity is recommended in conjunction, but Pilates is a method by which one learns to move the body well, and strengthen it intrinsically. When doing Pilates, one should be focusing on the body and drawing that connection between body and mind, as opposed to running on a treadmill staring at a television and listening to music, Bowen says.
A final key component of the Pilates philosophy is that of balance and moderation. The key to long-term health lies not just in the exercises, but in combining a focus on the body and its health with other health basics: get plenty of sleep, eat well and get outdoor activity and you greatly improve your chances of achieving long-term health.
“If, at the age of 30, you are stiff and out of shape, you are old. If, at 60, you are supple and strong, then you are young.”
— Joseph H. Pilates
One of the greatest aspects of yoga is its flexibility, says Hansa Knox Johnson, former president emeritus of the Yoga Alliance (www.yogaalliance.org). And no, she’s not talking about touching your toes. “It’s not a one-size fits all thing,” she says. “Yoga should always be personalized. When you go into yoga, your body guides you. You don’t have to go to a class or listen to others. Your body will guide you and take you to the next level.”
An ancient Hindu practice designed to help achieve unity of mind, body and spirit, yoga often is practiced in the West as an exercise system that can help increase body awareness, flexibility and posture through a series of poses, or asanas, that stretch and strengthen the body. This mind-body connection should bring a new awareness of the body, Johnson says, that extends to other aspects of life. “What we focus on in yoga is working with the inner body through awareness, rather than just working on the external. If you become aware of what the body’s doing, it helps you become more sensitive to things like, ‘Am I really hungry?’ and ‘Am I tired or staying up just because I feel like I should?’”
Another of yoga’s major benefits is its portability. Yoga can be done anywhere, and requires no equipment. Johnson says she began practicing yoga because she traveled often and could perform yoga in hotel rooms. Once you have familiarized yourself with the poses, you can practice yoga in your back yard, by a secluded pond, during a break at work or even in the shower.
And while yoga can and should be personalized, two recommendations hold true for anyone starting to practice yoga: Much as in Pilates, Johnson recommends starting off with a few classes with an experienced yoga teacher to learn more about the details and body alignment you can miss watching a video or reading a book. Second, do some research to find the style of yoga that’s right for you. “There are many, many styles,” Johnson points out. “Some people like a faster pace, some like a more meditative pace. Talk to some teachers. Visit some different classes until you find a teacher that resonates with you.”
The most important thing to recognize about your yoga practice, Johnson says, is what you want out of your own personal journey. While many people think of yoga in terms of increasing flexibility, as people age yoga also can be an aid to mobility. “As we get older and life steps on us in different ways, there’s often a mobility issue that comes up,” Johnson says. “Honor your mobility as well as your flexibility. It’s not about touching your toes. Honor your journey—it’s a pattern. It’s a lifestyle.”
Summer is a great time to enjoy the great outdoors. And what better way to see nature than to get off the couch, out of the car and hike right through the outdoors? Plus, getting our exercise walking out in nature feels truly natural.
“I would basically say the health benefits [of hiking] are the same things you would find with any type of aerobic exercise,” says Andrea Ketchmark, program assistant for the American Hiking Association (www.americanhiking.org).
“The outdoor aspect is where the mental health comes in. The release of adrenaline really causes people to relax,” Ketchmark says. While the long-term benefits of any regular exercise—weight loss, lowered blood pressure, reduced heart disease risk—are great, hiking also allows us to get outdoors and reconnect with nature. “The stress relief is kind of immediate. Most people sit at computers all day for work. Here, they’re in the outdoors, and they can relax and think about other things.”
Another healthy aspect of hiking is its inherent diversity of pace and resistance. “At the gym, one of the big things is interval training, where you’re trying to raise the heart rate and then bring it down again,” Ketchmark says. “That’s pretty much what hiking is. You go uphill for awhile, you go downhill for awhile. It’s the original interval training.”
Hiking can be adjusted to suit your own fitness and activity level. Hikers can vary their own pace, duration and surroundings. Plus, because hiking is low impact, hikers tend to exercise for longer periods of time, thus burning more calories.
For those who don’t know where to hike in their area, the American Hiking Association offers an online guide to trails all over the United States. Also, there’s a list of alliance-member hiking groups around the nation. Find a group near you, and it can offer maps of trails in your area and group hiking excursions. Also, check for special precautions for the trails in your area. The only other equipment you’ll need is a pair of comfortable, sturdy, well-fitted shoes.
As Ketchmark points out, hiking is “just getting back to the basics. Put one foot in front of the other and that’s how you get your exercise.”
“There are so many different reasons why everybody that hikes does hike—to birdwatch, specifically to get a workout or just to spend time with the family.”
Don’t forget water sports, which burn tons of calories, get you outside and moving and often are only available (for many of us) during this time of year. The following list is not at all comprehensive. Many other fun and challenging water sports are out there. Nearly anyone can find one to enjoy, from wakeboarding to sailing to surfing.
• Swimming is great for those who are looking for a cardiovascular workout that’s easy on the joints. If you have a pool at your home, swimming a few laps is an easy way to burn fat: Vigorous swimming for half an hour burns 250 calories. If you don’t have your own pool, contact your local city pool. Many offer lap lanes that are restricted to serious swimmers, or specific times the pool is open only for adults and those interested in swimming laps for exercise. And, since summertime may land you near lakes, rivers or the ocean anyway, grab some exercise by swimming before you hit the beach towel. Just make sure to follow some additional precautions when swimming in natural bodies of water. For tips on swimming in pools, lakes, rivers and oceans, visit the American Red Cross’s “Water Safety Tips” webpage at www.redcross.org/take-a-class/program-highlights/swimming.
• If you live near a natural body of water and have access to a boat, you might enjoy waterskiing. High on fun and low on boredom, a day of waterskiing will burn tons of calories (400 per hour) and, for most, offer new physical challenges. There are many clubs throughout the country devoted to waterskiing, and there may be lessons offered in your area. For a list of waterskiing clubs, resources and more, visit www.aquaskier.com.
• If you and your family are adventurous, you might like to try canoeing or kayaking. These activities can be enjoyed again and again if you learn the skills and purchase the equipment. You shouldn’t attempt to canoe or kayak without first taking professional instruction, but luckily classes are available across the country. And you don’t have to take the most challenging courses if you choose not to. Kayaking can be the adventurous, white-water activity dramatized in movies and on television, but it also can be a fairly relaxing jaunt down the river. Kayaks start at around $700, but when kayaking burns 400 to 700 calories in an hour, the investment may be worth it if you find it’s an activity you enjoy. For information on kayaking, instruction books, a state-by-state “Where to Go” locator and more, visit www.kayakonline.com.
Qigong is a method of coordinated breathing and motion exercises that has been part of the Chinese culture, linked to both health and spirituality, for more than 3,000 years. Qigong stems from the Chinese words qi, meaning air or vital energy, and gong, meaning self-discipline and the skill of working, cultivating and managing the qi, according to the Qigong Institute’s website (www.qigonginstitute.org). Dating back to prehistoric China, qigong also ties in with the concepts of Ancient Chinese Medicine, which purports to maintain health through qigong exercise and medicinal herbs, along with acupressure and acupuncture.
Designed to work the entire body, qigong incorporates the circulatory, lymphatic, cardiovascular, digestive, nervous and respiratory systems, according to the Qigong Institute. Qigong philosophy says that slow, graceful movements combined with concentration and slow breathing can increase and balance a person’s qi.
Qigong has enjoyed a longstanding Chinese reputation as being spiritual in nature. While this belief is the subject of some controversy, nearly everyone (Western scientists included) can agree that qigong imparts physical benefits due to its ability to enhance relaxation, manage stress, and promote deep breathing, flexibility and joint mobility.
There are literally thousands of forms of qigong. Among them are the Chinese martial arts, including tai chi and kung fu. If you are considering beginning qigong, you must do a little research to determine which type of qigong most interests you. As with other forms of exercise, it is important to find an instructor who understands the goals you personally hope to achieve through your qigong practice, be it increased health, improved flexibility, stress reduction or spiritual meditation. The Qigong Institute offers a directory of qigong therapists and teachers.
Qigong has been the subject of many scientific studies, both in China and by Western medical practitioners. Among its major studied benefits are reduced blood pressure and risk of stroke, and improved health of cancer patients when used in conjunction with drug therapy. Order copies of studies, or read articles based on the research, at the Qigong Institute’s website.
Jessica Kellner is coordinating editor of Herbs for Health.
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