Outdoor gyms are not only a great resource for bodyweight workouts, they’re also extremely accessible and won’t cost you a penny to use. Here’s how to get the most out of them.
Not only is nature a balm in anxious times – spending just 10 minutes surrounded by the natural world can reduce our stress levels – it can also boost our fitness performance.
Aside from giving you an excuse to get a change of scenery from looking at the same gym wall every day, exercising outdoors has lots of physical and mental benefits. Studies have found that “green exercise” boosts self-esteem and mood no matter how long you work out.
Exercising outside in the morning daylight can also sync your body’s natural circadian rhythm, which helps support your sleep and energy levels.
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With summer around the corner and longer, lighter days on the horizon now the clocks have gone back, it’s the perfect time to start exercising outdoors and reaping all its benefits. And you don’t just have to run to get a dose of open-air endorphins.
Thanks to the fact that the UK’s parks and green spaces house over 1,000 outdoor gyms you can also do strength training and cardio outdoors too.
According to the NHS, training outdoors can burn up to 20% more calories and uneven surfaces and the natural elements can add an extra challenge to your workouts. Plus, it’s completely free – very welcome news as the cost of living rises.
Park gym equipment does differ from what you’ll find in your local indoor gym. So it’s important to understand how it works to get the most out of it and prevent injuries.
“If you want to get in shape or just increase your general level of activity, park gyms are excellent resources,” Tom Cuff-Burnett, a personal trainer and movement specialist, tells Stylist. “Going to my local park gym not only kept me sane in lockdown but when I went back to my usual indoor gym my losses in strength, size and muscle mass were very minimal. So, park gyms are a great and cheap alternative and give you more scope that a usual home workout.”
“Bodyweight workouts have gained huge traction in the recent years and gyms in parks and commons are great resources to perform them. And ultimately, being able to move your bodyweight around is a true test of strength.”
What kind of equipment will I find at outdoor gyms?
The type and amount of equipment you’ll find at your local outdoor gym will vary. Usually, exercise stations contain basic versions of a lot of the equipment you’ll find in your indoor gyms, such as cross trainers, seated rowers, chest and leg presses and pull-up bars.
The most significant difference between indoor and outdoor gym equipment is that the al fresco machines don’t have adjustable weights.
Look out for ‘green energy gyms’, which use the energy you generate from exercising to charge electronic devices like your smartphone.
How can I use outdoor gym equipment effectively?
Move slowly to avoid injury
Unlike indoor gyms, if you start doing an exercise wrong there are no experts on hand to correct you, so to avoid making mistakes or causing yourself injury it’s important to move slowly and not overdo it.
“Feel your way in and do some research beforehand,” says Cuff-Burnett. “If you’re unsure about how to use a certain piece of equipment, YouTube has a wealth of videos that will give you an actual visual demonstration of certain exercises. If you want to get to grips with a piece of equipment and learn how to use it properly, video demonstrations are always a useful source.”
Bring additional kit
With most park gym equipment, you’ll usually be performing bodyweight exercises so adding an additional piece of kit like a resistance band can help increase the intensity of a workout and add an extra layer of support.
“Resistance bands can be super useful when adding them to outdoor gym park equipment,” explains Cuff-Burnett. “It gives you another dimension of support. So, if you can’t do a full pull-up, wrap a resistance band around the pull-up bar and use that to help assist you with the pull-up. That’s one way of making it safe and also manageable. It can help you get the technique right, but also offer you a level of progression.”
As park gyms use fixed pieces of kit, you have to think outside the box when it comes to adding resistance to your workout.
“There are two ways of adding intensity,” Cuff-Burnett explains. “Either increase the number of reps. So, where you might usually do eight reps, you might be able to 16 if you’ve got no weight attached to you.”
“Or, a particularly effective way of increasing strength is to use a technique called ‘time under tension’. This means you do your reps super slowly to fixed timings. For a pull-up, for example, you’d pull up to the bar and then take five seconds to lower yourself back down. So, you’re almost moving in slow motion and the muscles have to work for a longer period. It’s a proven strength training technique. You can use it with or without weights, but it’s really useful for bodyweight workouts and you’ll find you tire a lot quicker.”
Spice up your park run
Running is the go-to park exercise, but if you want to add another dimension to your usual 5k circuit, adding some movement on park gym equipment can help you have a more balanced workout.
“Running is great, but what you’re not doing is strength training for the lower body and you need strength to maintain joint health,” explains Cuff-Burnett. “There’s also no upper body engagement really. So if you’re doing a 5k run. Go for 2.5k, stop halfway and do a little bodyweight circuit on the park gym. I recommend a few reps of pull-ups, push-ups, pikes, pike push-ups and maybe even some squats or lunges. Then carry on with the other 2.5k. When you get home you’ll have done a balanced workout.”
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How can I find my nearest outdoor gym?
The Great Outdoor Gym Company has a map of all the gyms it supplies equipment to so you can find your nearest as well as see what equipment each one offers.
Enter your postcode on Fresh Air Fitness to find your nearest one and find out what equipment it offers.
Wicksteed also has a map of all the gyms it provides equipment to.
For more wellness ideas, visit the Strong Women Training Club.
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