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Bored With the Gym?

Tired of the crowds, the pulsing music, and the beeping electronic gadgets in gyms, increasing numbers of trainers are organizing outdoor workouts.

Fresh-Air Fitness

Tina Vindum keeps things lively by varying her workouts constantly. One day she leads clients on a trail run through Muir Woods, stopping at various stations for strength-training work (using elastic cords, not barbells). The next session they're toting 45-pound packs up the Dipsea stairs, a notorious series of 676 steps on a trail linking the town of Mill Valley with the Pacific Ocean. The variety keeps her clients coming back, but it's the outdoor angle that hooks them in the first place, Vindum says.

Compare gym-cycling, for example, with running on an uneven dirt path where a steep embankment drops off to one side. On the footpath, you are forced to concentrate on each step. Vindum calls this "kinesthetic awareness." It's the sort of intense focus that mentally invigorates her clients, even as they work to physical exhaustion.

True, not everyone has the ocean or the Dipsea stairs to incorporate into their regimens. But most of us can find a city park or a country lane without looking too hard.

And don't forget the safety issues to consider out in the real world. You have to look both ways for cars, of course, and carry water if you're exposed to the sun or exercising in a hot climate for an extended period of time. Rain and wind? Sorry, you're not necessarily excused on account of the elements. Vindum has canceled only two classes in five years, despite the El Niño winter of 1997-1998.

"There's no such thing as bad weather," she says merrily. "You just have to dress properly."

Of course, there are less extreme models of outdoor fitness. "You can entice people with the joys of a sunset or the smells of honeysuckle," says Jordan, who often leads litter-clearing, ecological hikes.

Still, don't expect health club memberships to decline any time soon, says Richard Cotton, an exercise physiologist and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. More likely, he says, members will increasingly balance their aerobics classes and bench presses with short outdoor workouts. In many clubs that have become uncomfortably crowded, private trainers are leading their clients out into the sunshine whenever they can.

Once liberated from the gym, exercisers often find that they become more flexible in their approach to fitness. "Now when I travel for business, I don't have to rely on the hotel health club," Gonzalez says. "I don't even just run down the street. I'll stop to jump up and down on the curb."

A few years ago, that sort of behavior made onlookers cross the street to avoid you. Nowadays, they just might find a patch of curb and join in.


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