Green Exercise Fills the Fitness Gap
February 5, 2010I've heard them all—“I hate the gym,” “ I can’t afford to join a gym,” “I don’t like exercise,” “I’m not motivated to exercise on my own,” “I don’t know what to do,” “Walking is boring,” “I’m afraid to go out in the park alone.”
As a public health professional with a particular interest in obesity, a certified personal trainer with a bit of a health club burnout, and president of a nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase the use of parks, I had been looking for a way to bring my experiences and passions to a focus in a way that had maximum impact.
In 2004 if found that synergy and launched a pilot program, “Fitness Walking in Fort Tryon Park.” In the six years since that launch, I’ve learned that structured fitness walks in local parks—if thoughtfully designed, staffed, and promoted--can indeed address most if not all of the commonly stated fitness obstacles for many people. And my research revealed there was an extra bonus: when physical activity takes place outdoors in groups, we increase the benefits of physical activity to our bodies, minds, and psyches—at no extra cost.
The walks are not just a walk in the park! After the gathering and sign-in, we begin with a warm up, follow that with an aerobic/strengthening segment, and finish with a cool down/stretching segment. All three segments include balance and coordination exercises as well.
Happily, we require no dedicated equipment to achieve a full body workout—we just use what the park offers: paths, steps, stone walls, benches, and one or two items in the playground. We’re fortunate in that Fort Tryon Park is quite beautiful, well maintained, large (67 acres), and is situated on a cliff overlooking the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades The warm up is conducted on an overlook, under a canopy of 75-year-old Linden trees. Our push ups are done against a stone wall with a view of the river; during our lunges and aerobic walking we travel along paths and stone steps bordered by rock formations that remain from the last glacial migration; and we do abdominal work on wooden benches in view of the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The aerobic/strengthening segment is structured like circuit training—the loop around the park is just over a mile and is punctuated by basic exercises for arms, chest, back, core, hips and thighs. Even while walking we do arm exercises so as to use every moment productively and get the heart rate up. (Remember Monty Python’s Bureau of Silly Walks?) In addition, I use interval training with high intensity jogging alternating with lower intensity work.
In addition to the thorough workout, participants get the bonus of being exposed to nature: we brake for cardinals, falcons, ground hogs, sunrise, and comical squirrels. According to a growing body of literature, exposure to nature improves mood and self-esteem, may protect from strokes and heart disease, reduces stress, blood pressure, and mental fatigue, helps you heal faster from surgery, and improves feelings of neighborhood safety. The effect is so established that a team of British researchers have published their positive findings on “green exercise” and Dutch researchers have published intriguing results on what they call “vitamin g.”
The program is free, and all levels are welcome. Classes take place three mornings a week and are held all year round, except in extreme or dangerous weather conditions. This includes temperatures or wind chill factors below 20 degrees Fahrenheit or above 95 degrees; heavy rain or lighter rain combined with heavy wind; and exceptionally icy conditions. I usually have around 20 people but I’m amazed when as many as 12 people show up on those 20 degree days!
Over 300 people have participated in the program over the years, and I have a hard core group of regulars and quasi-regulars that participate as their schedule and health allow. The age ranges from 14 to 88 and for many of them, this is their main or only source of exercise.