Work out outside cover image of Kim and Chris hanging with one arm on a bar no the beach in Tulum

Get Fitter (and Happier) than Ever

Working out outside is addictive.

Kim and I know this first hand. For years, we only worked out in gyms. And we liked it. We looked good and felt good and didn’t think anything was missing…

…Until we moved to places where nearby outdoor workout areas enticed us to ditch the gym and go to them from time to time.

“From time to time” soon became all the time. We got hooked. And we’ve felt better than ever since.

But working out outside isn’t perfect. Decide for yourself with these pros and cons of working out outside versus the gym.

Supernatural Kim doing resistance band training on stairs
Strap yourself in like Kim here and get ready to be motivated to try working out outside. Photo by Saul Sauza.

Body Benefits of Working Out Outside vs. at the Gym

✓ It Makes You Super-Natural

When we work out in nature we resort to natural movements like sprinting, jumping, throwing, pulling, and pushing, to try to get super-naturally fit.

These “compound movements,” as they’re called, work a bunch of muscles at once, which most gym machines and exercises don’t do. They help us build more natural-looking and well-balanced bodies.

And since we don’t have machines to guide our movement, these outdoor workout exercises also improve our coordination and require a wider range of motion, which keeps us flexible and mobile.

Chris lifting a big rock at the beach.
Instead of barbells, we have to find big rocks if we want to lift heavy when working out outside.

✗ …But It’s Harder to Get Super Strong

Especially the legs.

Sprints, one-legged exercises, rock tosses, and jumps do a pretty good job, but they can’t compare to the loads we can lift by squatting or dead-lifting so we sometimes go to the gym for a change of pace and a heavy leg workout.

Kim doing her favorite toes-to-bar exercise at an outdoor workout area in Valencia, Spain.
Kim’s favorite “ab” exercise, toes-to-bar, also works her upper body.

✓ You Never Have to “Do Abs” Again

Crunches and planks are Kim and my least favorite exercises, but they felt like a necessary evil when working out at the gym.

Not outside.

We’ve ditched “doing abs” and have stronger cores than ever because the compound exercises work our abs at the same time as they work our other muscles.

We still do some ab-intense exercises like L-sits, hanging leg-lifts, and dragonflies, but if you try them you’ll see that, unlike planks and crunches, they work a lot more than just your abs.

Kim showing her calluses in front of her face
Kim showing off the calluses she’s earned for outdoor workouts.

✗ …But You’ll Never Be a Hand Model Again, Either

Throwing rough stones, hanging on bars, and doing push-ups and handstands on the dirt and cement have given us our fair share of blisters and callouses.

✓ It Helps You Build a Statuesque Body

My ideal body-type is a real-life version of the statue of David: well-balanced and not too big, but obviously fit.

Kim wants a similarly naturally-toned, statuesque body.

Thanks to their multi-muscle-building nature, we’ve found it easier to achieve those ideals with outdoor workout exercises rather than at the gym.

✗ …But Not Mr. and Ms. Olympia Bodies

If we instead wanted to build big bulging muscles, we’d be better off in a gym. Machines and barbells make it easier to isolate and grow your show muscles.

Chris doing a shoulder stand in Tulum, Mexico.
Chris doing a kind of dangerous move, but still not as dangerous as stupid stuff he did in the gym.

✓ It’s More Idiot and Injury Proof than the Gym

Like most gym-goers, Kim and I’ve been guilty of loading more weight than we should, looking like fools while over-exerting ourselves, then feeling like fools when we strain a muscle (normally our backs) because of it.

It’s a lot harder to do dumb stuff like that working out outside because there are no weights and we typically do movements our bodies are designed to do.

Even better, the natural movements seem to have made us more resistant to injury by increasing our mobility and the strength of our balance muscles and tendons.

✗ …But It’s Harder to Recover From Specific Injuries

If Kim or I were to seriously injure ourselves, we’d probably have to spend more time back in the gym, where it’s easier to target and rehab specific muscles.

Psychological Benefits of Working Out Outside vs at the Gym

✓ It Makes You More Creative

The basic outdoor workout exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and sprints get boring fast.

And a bored body doesn’t get fit.

So, we’ve been forced to get creative, making up exercises that incorporate elastic bands, each other’s bodyweight, stones, logs, steps, circuits, and hills and more.

Chris wondering what to do for his outdoor workout, scratching his head.
Chris seems to be having a hard time deciding what kind of outdoor workout he wants to do.

✗ …But You Don’t Always Want to Have to Be Creative

Sometimes we’d prefer not to have to brainstorm outdoor workout exercises. We’d rather pick up a heavy barbell a few times and be over with it. There are also far fewer books, blogs, and other resources with inspiration and info on working out outside.

chris dead hang skin the cat exercise on rings in vancouver
Not once do we go out to workout and come back in a worse mood.

✓ It Improves Your General Well-Being

We spend most of our days cooped-up, staring at computers, so the opportunity to get out and get fresh air is the vitamin we need to keep us from losing our minds.

Not to mention that we get actual vitamins working out outside too, like Vitamin D.

Ample studies support our common sense that working out outside is good for our souls. This review, The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all, explains that working out outside has been found to reduce stress and mental fatigue, improve our moods, and even make us work harder without feeling like we’re exerting yourself as much.

Chris doing a hill sprint in Medellin, Colombia.
Doing hill sprints in the high heat and humidity of Medellin, Colombia.

✓ It Makes You Uncomfortable

Most would argue that exposure to unpleasant cold, heat, wind, and/or rain is a big disadvantage of working out outside versus at the gym.

I’d argue the opposite. Sure, it’s unpleasant to exercise outside when the weather sucks, but overcoming that discomfort brings big rewards you can’t get from the gym.

Some of the workouts I remember most fondly are the hardcore ones in pouring rain and finger-numbing cold that I didn’t want to do but did anyway.

And I’m not crazy. Studies show that getting cold and uncomfortable can boost your metabolism, boost our mood (…once you’re warm and dry again), and improve your immune system.

✗ …But It Still Sucks to Work Out Outside When the Weather’s Bad

Kim’s not convinced by my arguments about the benefits of working out outside in inclement weather.

Neither am I sometimes. No matter how good it may be for me, I admittedly work out outside less, either going back to the gym or doing workouts at home, when the weather’s shitty.

Plus, bad weather can also make surfaces dangerously slippery.

Piggy back working out outdoors in Vancouver
When was the last time you piggy-backed a friend? See 7 more fun but intense partner exercises to try.

✓ It Doesn’t Feel Like Work

With the access cards, work stations, routines, harsh fluorescent light, and annoying people, going to the gym can feel a lot like going to the office.

Working out outside feels like we’re kids again, going out to play.

✗ …So Sometimes It’s Hard to Get Back to Work

Because we enjoy the fresh air so much when working out outside, we tend to loiter around too long and delay getting back to work, even though we know we have to.

✓ It’s Good Practice at not Giving a Crap What Other People Think

Strangers sometimes gawk at us—some have even taken pictures!—when we do unusual outdoor workout exercises like piggybacks or beach rock throws.

This attention felt awkward at first, but pretty soon we got used to it. We even started to feel proud of it, especially when we noticed people starting to copy us.

Our lack of giving a crap about what others think about our outdoor workouts has carried over to other parts of our lives.

✓ It’s Less Competitive

There’s no “How much do you bench?” garbage with outdoor workouts.

We still feel envious of people who roll up and do one-armed pull-ups or press-to-handstands, but since differences in strength aren’t so easily quantified nobody cares as much.

Kim working out in Bangkok
Who knows how heavy this barbell at Bangkok’s Lumpini Park is? At least Kim’s getting “tire-d.”

✗ …But It’s Also Harder to Track Progress

Without weights and plates, it’s not as easy to track progress and strength gains when working out outside. This can be demotivating.

Bonus Benefits

Chris' choice of clothing while doing single left deadlifts are shorts and shoes.
Chris is staying cool with no shirt and one of his three go-to shorts while doing single leg deadlifts with a rock.

✓ You Can Wear Whatever You Want

Not only do gyms often feel like fashion show contests, but most require covered toes and torsos for sanitary, safety, and social reasons.

Outdoors, we can be as unstylish, “unsanitary,” “unsafe,” and anti-social as we want. That’s bliss for fellow sock-haters and torso-exposers like me.

✓ It’s Welcoming of All Levels

Going to a gym for the first time can feel intimidating. You feel like everyone’s watching you, judging you for your poor form, and mocking the sissy light weights you’re lifting.

When you work out outside, often nobody else is around to judge you. And, for reasons I’ve yet to understand, the people who work out outside tend to be more supportive and not judgmental at all.

✗ …But It Can Be Harder to Get Started

As we already mentioned, you can find many more resources to help you get started working out at the gym than for working out outside.

Also, without the abundant mirrors that you have in a gym (unless you’re at Lumpini Park in Bangkok), it’s harder to self-assess your form (…and marvel at your hardening, swelling body).

Working out outside with friends at Savary Island
A group workout with friends on the tidal flats of Savary Island.

✓ It’s Fun With Friends

In the ten-plus years Kim and I worked out inside, we never once organized a group workout with friends at the gym.

But we’ve doing group workouts regularly since we started working out outside. All but the laziest of our friends are keen to get their butts off their couches and try something new in social environment. And it’s actually fun!

See our post on 7 Partner Exercises for a Fun but Intense Full-Body Workout for some inspiration.

✓ It Saves Money

If anything, you’re getting the most out of your tax dollars when you work out outside.

✗ …But Some People Need to Pay to Be Motivated

Some people motivate themselves to start going to the gym by signing big-buck fixed contract gym memberships.

And for some people it works, though gyms generally end up the winners. (Here’s a decent Planet Money podcast episode on this topic.)

Chris doing a workout outside in a pool
When it’s really hot out, you can even do an outdoor workout in the pool.

✓ You Can Work Out Outside Anywhere

Beaches, playgrounds, forests, basketball courts, pools, stairs, grass fields… you name it.

Wherever we are in the world we always manage to find somewhere to work out outside.

✗ …But It’s Not Always Ideal or Easy

Not all neighborhoods have the space, parks, and calisthenics equipment (at least a kid’s playground) that we prefer to have for working out outside.

We can make do for a week or so in those places, but if we were to live there we’d have to go to a gym.

✓ It’s Cleaner

I don’t care how muddy working out outside can get, getting dirty with dirt is still cleaner than exposing yourself to a swirl of sweat, sneezes, and spits at the gym, no matter how many times you spray everything with sanitizer.

✗ …But There Are Fewer Amenities

Wherever you work out outside is less likely to have water fountains, showers, toilets, and towel service than a gym.

Kim doing a group workout at Kits Beach in Vancouver
Making new friends at an outdoor workout in Vancouver, Canada.

✓ It Improves Your Travels

Since doing reps of writing doesn’t make me stronger, I’ll won’t repeat what we already wrote in our 9 Fun and Fast Ways to Stay Fit While Traveling to explain how working out outside can enhance your travels.

Get Out There!

If you have any questions or doubts about working out outside, leave us a comment.

And if you want some ideas and inspiration, check out:

Don’t Just Work Out Outside

Live outside the box.

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