6 Great Ways to Get Fit Outdoors

Experts share their favorite ways to shape up and have fun outside.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 16, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

You've been indoors most of the winter, with just a treadmill for company. And then you hear it -- the siren call of warmer weather, calling you outside.

You'd be wise to heed that call. Pleasant temperatures and the visual interest of your surroundings can not only motivate you to exercise, but help you enjoy it more, experts say.

"And if you love doing an activity, you're more apt to do it regularly," says Robyn Stuhr, exercise physiologist and director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery.

But what should you do once you get out of doors? Fitness experts who spoke to WebMD gave us their picks for some of the best (and most enjoyable) fitness activities out there: walking, jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, and kayaking.


You say walking's too pedestrian? Actually, it's one of the best lifetime sports.

"It's easy on the joints, you don't need a lot of fancy equipment, and you can burn calories, even though it's a more modest amount compared to some other activities," says Stuhr.

Current national guidelines recommend exercise (such as brisk walking) for 30 minutes, most days in a week.

According to the guidelines, walking for 30 minutes, 5 days a week, at a brisk pace (about 4 mph) will help ward off chronic disease.

"Your risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure go down as a response to just increasing your level of physical activity," says Stuhr.

Beyond that, if you're trying to lose weight, you should shoot for 60 minutes of walking most days of the week. To keep weight off, get 60-90 minutes of walking most days.

Sound daunting? The trick is to incorporate walking into your daily life and break the time into several manageable spurts. 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.

Equipment Needed: Good athletic shoes are all you need.

Pros: Walking is a weight-bearing exercise (which means it's good for bone health) and helps build cardiovascular endurance. Almost everyone can do it, regardless of fitness level.

Cons: You may not lose weight as quickly as with some other forms of cardiovascular exercise.


Jogging is terrific for your heart and lungs, and it improves your stamina. If you're trying to lose weight, it can burn calories more quickly than walking.

"On the negative side, running does put more stress on the joints -- the knees, ankles, and hips," says Stuhr.

The key is to start slowly. The general rule is to increase your time or distance by no more than 10% each week.

"The reason we make that suggestion is not because the heart and lungs can't handle it, but the joints and muscles are a little slower to adapt to the stress of vigorous exercise," Stuhr says. Too much too soon, and you can develop tendinitis or a variety of muscle or joint problems.

Equipment: It's important to get a good pair of running shoes, and, for women, a quality sports bra. Pay attention to the surface on which you run. Paths and grass are softer, but they're uneven and could have holes. Concrete is harder, but good shoes help absorb shock.

Pros: Running is an excellent cardiovascular exercise. A 150-pound woman can burn 306 calories running for 30 minutes at 5 mph (a 12-minute mile). A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999 found that aerobic exercise like running may be as effective as medication for treating depression in some people.

Cons: Running can be hard on muscles and joints and can cause injuries such as shin splints and tendinitis.


Not only is bicycling an excellent cardiovascular exercise, but you can really explore your community by cycling to different neighborhoods or in parks, bike paths, or trails. Many people cycle to commute to work.

While running tends to target the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of your thighs), cycling uses the quadriceps (the muscles on the front of the thighs) more.

It's important to make sure your bike is fitted properly to your body; otherwise, you'll put too much stress on your back or knees.

"I recommend finding a bike shop or a demo program where you can try a bike out," says Tonya Laffey, a professional mountain biker and founder of MTB Chick Racing. "I would highly recommend getting a fit kit, which measures you for the bike."

When you're getting started, you want a softer seat but not one that is too wide, or you won't be able to get behind it, Laffey tells WebMD. If you're a woman, try a women's racing saddle. It will be more comfortable but may take some time to get used to.

If your gym offers indoor cycling classes, they can help you prepare for biking outdoors.

It's also a good idea to learn basic bike repair, Laffey says.

Equipment: You need a bike, a helmet, and gloves with a little palm padding, which will absorb vibration and cushion your hands in a spill.

Pros: Biking is fun, can be used as transportation, and works different muscles than walking or running.

Cons: Equipment can be expensive. Cycling isn't weight-bearing exercise (the type that helps build healthy bones), so you'll need to couple it with strength training or another form of weight-bearing activity for optimum fitness.


Swimming is a wonderful cardiovascular conditioner that also helps tones arms and legs, and it's very easy on the joints, says Stuhr.

In fact, it's perfect for people who have muscle or joint problems. The weightlessness of the water helps them exercise pain-free.

Swimming will increase your stamina, can help ward off diabetes and high blood pressure, and relieves stress, Stuhr tells WebMD.

Equipment: A swimsuit and maybe goggles.

Pros: Most people already know how to swim; it's fun, refreshing, and forgiving of excess weight or physical disabilities.

Cons: Not everyone has easy access to pools, lakes, or the ocean. Swimming is not weight bearing, so you should pair it with other activities such as walking or lifting weights.


Hiking uses a lot of up-and-down movement, so you get a tremendous leg workout along with the cardiovascular benefits.

Not only that, but hiking provides a relaxing atmosphere for a workout that doesn't seem like a workout at all. Listening to the birds and a babbling brook, and enjoying the cool breeze of the forest, provides a break from daily stresses, says Sheri McGregor, author of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Diego.

Hiking is also a great sport to do along with a friend or mate. But it does require some preparation.

"A beginner should do a little research and find short hikes that offer good scenery without too much difficulty or special equipment," McGregor says.

Beginners should also be aware of potential dangers in their area. Snakes, mountain lions, biting flies, or bees can be an issue.

You'll also need to dress for quickly changing temperatures -- think layers. And be sure you know if water is available where you're heading. A good regional hiking book with area trails is a great investment.

More difficult hikes offer a sense of accomplishment. McGregor and her spouse do "extreme" hikes, requiring intense boulder scaling that engages the mind as well as the body. For extra adventure and challenge, you can backpack.

Equipment: You'll need a good pair of hiking boots, a backpack (to carry water and supplies), and possibly a walking stick.

Pros: Hiking is a great leg, ab, and butt workout, and it helps build cardio endurance. A 150-pound woman can burn 200-plus calories hiking 30 minutes.

Cons: Unless you live near hiking territory, this is generally a weekend-only activity. Try walking, jogging, or another activity for your weekday workouts.


Kayaking is primarily an upper-body sport, but it also works the muscles of the center of your body, back, and stomach.

In fact, "many beginner kayakers fatigue early because they rely mostly on their arms rather than their core," says Brian Clark, a kayaking enthusiast and residence life management area coordinator at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

Beginners should start by taking a class or clinic in a pool or flat-water location.

"You'll learn how to roll the kayak, paddling technique, read the river and what to do for problems like getting pinned against rocks," says John Benson, director of the Sewanee Outing Program at Sewanee, the University of the South, in Tennessee.

To prepare your body for kayaking, pay attention to working out your shoulders, abs, and lower back. It's also important to work on your flexibility, Clark says. Pilates and yoga are helpful for this.

Equipment: A kayak, a helmet, a, personal flotation device, and safety gear such as throw ropes. A neoprene or wet suit is good to have in cooler weather.

Pros: If you love the water, kayaking is a fun and scenic way to work out.

Cons: Equipment is expensive, and you need training before you hit the water on your own. For most of us, this is a weekend-only activity.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Archives of Internal Medicine, October 25, 1999. Robin Stuhr, director, Women's Sports Medicine Center, New York's Hospital for Surgery, New York. Tonya Laffey, founder, MTB Chick Racing, Longmont, Colo. Sheri McGregor, author, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: San Diego. Brian Clark, residence life management area coordinator, Roanoke College, Salem, Va. John Benson, director, Sewanee Outing Program, Sewanee, the University of the South, Tennessee.

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