By Sandra Winters
There’s something about warming temperatures that motivates people to go outside and move. That’s especially true this year, after we’ve all spent so much time inside (and perhaps gained an extra pound or ten as a result).
The best way to put that get-going impulse to effective use is by finding a fitness program you can really learn to love—because if you don’t love it, you won’t stick with it no matter how good your intentions may be.
Here are eight exercise options, four outdoors, four primarily indoors (but which can move outside if you have a yard). The outdoor ones are solitary activities, perfect for a social-distancing world, while the four indoor choices can be augmented by YouTube videos and/or online classes.
What You’ll Get Out of It: low-impact cardiovascular fitness, lower-body strength, improved balance
Have a bike gathering dust in the shed? Get it out, clean it up—and climb aboard.
Personal trainer Jennifer Cohen believes mountain biking and BMX racing provide the best workouts on two wheels because of the speed and varied terrain. These adrenaline-pumping sports also have the greatest risk of injuries, so protective gear is a must.
If you’re more into safety than thrills, bicycling is still a great fitness activity that engages all of the muscles in the lower body. A leisurely ride around the block won’t cut it: For the best workout, pedal fast and tackle a few hills—and remember to wear a helmet, obey the rules of the road and watch for traffic.
What You’ll Get Out of It: whole-body fitness, stronger bones, improved mental and overall well-being
If you have access to a nature trail—even a path through a local wooded park—hiking offers its own advantages.
“It’s a great way to get a cardio workout and strengthen your lower body—and the steeper the incline, the more it engages your core,” says Cohen, author of Strong Is The New Skinny (Harmony). “If you add poles, you get a bit of an upper body workout, too.”
If you prefer walking to hiking (or need a quick workout that doesn’t require driving to a hiking trail), Cohen suggests maintaining a brisk pace, choosing routes with hills and holding two- or three-pound weights to build strength and get a better calorie burn.
Whether walking or hiking, wear good shoes and stay on sidewalks or marked trails. If you plan to walk in the evening, wear a reflective vest or add reflective tape to your clothing. Hikers should also be prepared with plenty of water, snacks, layers of clothing, maps and a cell phone in case of emergencies.
What You’ll Get Out of It: same as hiking/walking while burning more calories
If you’re looking to melt some away some of those stay-at-home pounds, running is a good choice—as long as you begin slowly and build up gradually. (Checking in with your healthcare practitioner wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.)
It’s best to keep it simple when you start out, says exercise physiologist and marathoner Tom Holland, CSCS, author of Swim, Bike, Run—Eat (Fair Winds Press). “First decide on a number of times per week that’s reasonable to you, aiming for three or more non-consecutive days,” he says. Then start with 20 minutes or even 10 minutes, especially since “too much too soon is the reason behind most injuries.”
It also helps to keep track of your progress by clocking your time or distance. “You should feel less tired and be able to walk farther as you build up your stamina,” says Holland.
What You’ll Get Out of It: low-impact cardiovascular fitness, greater overall strength, reduced stress, calorie burning
At this point, swimming is best pursued if you have your own pool. But if you do, this activity offers decided advantages.
Cohen loves swimming because it engages multiple muscle groups from the head to the toes; serves as a great cardiovascular workout; and, thanks to the resistance of the water, builds strength, too. “Serious swimmers are strong and fit,” Cohen notes. Swimming is also a no-impact workout, making it ideal for those with injuries.
For older exercisers, “swimming is the one activity you can do the longest without problems if you have joint issues,” says exercise physiologist Irv Rubenstein, PhD. On the other hand, swimming does not provide the same bone-building capacity as land-based exercises and so is best paired with an activity such as weight training.
What You’ll Get Out of It: greater cardiovascular fitness, improved mental well-being
Aerobics is also known as “cardio” for a reason: it enables the heart to pump more blood with less effort—and makes you feel just plain good.
The key is to pace yourself: You should feel invigorated after your workout, not like you were run over by a truck. (If you’re older or have pre-existing conditions, speak with your healthcare practitioner first.) To get the most out of your sessions, engage in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week.
You can go the bare-bones route with simple exercises such as jumping jacks, skipping rope and such. But if you want more of a fun factor, search “aerobic workouts” on YouTube (or DVDs); you’ll find dozens of choices, many with suitably energetic hosts, tailored to any need or desire you can name: low impact, dance-based, high-intensity, etc.
What You’ll Get Out of It: low-impact strength building (especially for your core), improved flexibility and posture
This program, devised by German immigrant Joseph Pilates a century ago, is a good option if you prefer a more structured workout. The exercises—which have names like Criss-Cross and Swan—involve precision movements and are usually done in a specific order, one right after another.
Many studio-based Pilates classes use machines, especially one sliding-platform-with-pulleys apparatus called a reformer. But there are mat-based classes as well, making it suitable for a home workout; again, a YouTube search will pull up dozens of examples. (You can buy your own reformer if you really get into Pilates.) These exercises don’t increase cardiovascular fitness, so you should pair Pilates with something like aerobics or running.
What You’ll Get Out of It: improved muscular and skeletal strength, calorie burning, greater muscle definition
This fitness choice is all about the muscles. Doing 30 to 45 minutes of strength training two to three times a week is an excellent way of building lean muscle mass while also burning calories.
While many people associate strength training with equipment such as dumbbells or plate racks, the only thing you really need is your own body; pushing against its weight is what makes exercises such as lunges, planks and pushups effective despite their simplicity.
Like all other fitness programs, proper form and gradual increases in effort are crucial in making weight work a safe, satisfying experience. If you do add gear, resistance bands—basically rubber tubes you hold at each end—are inexpensive and easy to use. Other equipment options include kettlebells and medicine balls; even household objects such as plastic jugs filled with water will suffice.
What You’ll Get Out of It: increased flexibility and strength, improved mental outlook, reduced stress
While group classes or one-on-one instruction offer the best ways to learn yoga’s precision-oriented movements, it is possible for even a newbie to create a satisfying home practice with the help of DVDs/YouTube tutorials. And now, with many studios temporarily shuttered, a number of yoga teachers are offering classes online.
Once you build a repertoire of poses (known as asanas), you can tailor your yoga routine to your own needs such as building lower-body strength, for example, or improving spinal flexibility. You may even want to create two or three routines of between three to five poses each that you can rotate through to maintain interest and bring balance to your practice.
Yoga doesn’t require anything more than a good-quality mat (don’t skimp). You might want to add such simple equipment as yoga blocks and straps; these are designed to help you get into and maintain some poses.