We are bombarded with endless ways to exercise, including aerobics, kettlebells, circuits, zumba, bootcamps, and not forgetting the old time favourite – the gym.

Generally I think it’s great to have all these options, but to get maximum results both physically and mentally, I like to keep it simple, and go ‘au naturel’ with my fitness.

Everyone at some point has probably been in awe or humbled by nature. Watching tumbling waterfalls, trees swaying in the summer breeze, or the birds doing a delicate sky dance before dusk, are a few of the picturesque images that are conjured up when we think of nature. But I find it is not only about these visual pleasures, it is other senses too; the smells, the touch, the taste, the noise. Feeling the warm sunshine on my face, hearing birds sing to each other in their own wee way (that I so desperately want to interpret and understand), tasting the sea air, smelling freshly cut grass, or battling through a tremendous thunderstorm – it is all of these things that create both the harmony and drive for me to exercise.

Research can partly explain why I find exercising outdoors to be so great, because it tells us that connecting with nature helps our mind, body and soul. It helps to alleviate stress, anxiety and depression – things that have far too much a common place in our modern life. The sunlight provides us with Vitamin D, which may be becoming more relevant as we spend so much time in our homes and offices. Studies also suggest that being outdoors can help with our internal body clock, normalizing hormonal functions, clearing our heads, and promoting good sleep. And I’m sure you are aware of the strong message experts are sending out about reducing our screen time (especially for children), and although I enjoy exercising to music, I welcome taking a very large step away from the tv, laptop and mobile phone.

Despite my overwhelming urge to disappear one day in a campervan and park up in the middle of nowhere to live my days out living off the land (I’ll keep on dreaming), the reality is I, like most of us, live in an urban environment. So I find it even more important to take the time to indulge in a variety of natural surroundings to complete my workouts. Luckily we are extremely spoilt in Northern Ireland. We have a multitude of fantastic outdoor spaces within easy reach. A hop skip and a jump in a different direction each time will result in a totally different location and experience. This is fantastic for my motivation. It’s just me and the forest, me and that hill, me and the beach….and that drives me to work harder and longer. Nature becomes my friend and my competition. “That hill won’t beat me”. “I can keep squatting until that bird flies away”, “I won’t stop jogging until that boat disappears out of view…..”.

This is why I know I will have a totally different experience – not just a different workout, an experience – each and every time I exercise outdoors. The scenery will be different, the weather will be different, the wildlife will be different, the senses will be different, my stimuli will be different, the workout will be different, the experience will be different! And for me, that’s amazing.
Nature controls my workouts; I do not control my workouts like I would in a gym. In a gym, I can’t find the strength, will power, motivation or even sometimes the inclination to reach out and press that ‘up’ arrow key on the speed or incline. Instead I would continue as I was, or most often, I would stop. BUT in nature, I don’t have an arrow key. I have the time it takes a squirrel to run up a tree, or how quickly I can sprint into that gale force wind to the next bench, or how many times I can run up and down a flight of stairs before that couple out for a romantic walk reach me. The motivation is ever changing, the exercises completed have a huge variety, my whole body gets a workout, so in turn, the results are amazing.

But sometimes, I have to admit, it has the opposite effect. On occasions, I give up. I find myself sitting for longer and longer during my rest periods, until, eventually, my workout turns in to one big rest period. Instead of a gruelling workout with my friend nature, I find myself just sitting watching her, breathing her, absorbing her, appreciating her. I lie on the grass with my eyes closed and just listen. I hear all the things I would normally block out and try to identify them all. I sit on a wall and get thoroughly drenched while watching dark rumbling clouds. I watch the wildlife and try to interpret the patterns of their movements and take a lesson from them. And when I finally manage to pull myself away, to return to ‘normal life’, I leave without sore muscles, a bounding chest, or the satisfaction of knowing I’ve improved my physical health a little bit more that day.

But instead I have gained some precious moments. I’ve benefitted in ways, which sometimes are so much more important than exercise. I have had a chance to completely stop, to clear my head of stress, to calm down the pace of my life, to sort out my thousand thoughts, to regain a sense of freedom and refocus.

And I don’t mind that at all.