The Best Way to Get Fit: Leave the Gym

I'm just going to come out and say it: screw the gym. Screw it right in the face. There is a better way to get the body you want, one that's actually fun and that uses your brain's reward system. Really.

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Why the Gym Sucks

In general, gyms are are mind-numbingly boring. Don't believe me? Why do you think there are TVs attached to every treadmill, bike, and elliptical machine? It's all that stands between us and the realization that "Holy crap, we're all just hamsters running on wheels! I hate the whir and drone of these machines and the recycled air. Why is this thing wet? This place smells like asses and armpits!" The distractions are all that keep you from feeling like you're in a sweaty version of Groundhog Day, where every time you go it's the exact same, mundane thing. Not surprisingly, the sort of ennui can kill your motivation to exercise.

If it feels like a chore, you won't want to do it, and if you're doing something you don't really want to do, you're probably going to drag your feet and not go as hard as you could.

There are plenty of exceptions here. Say you live in Minnesota and it's February, yes, go to the gym so you can exercise without dying of hypothermia. Or maybe you need some specific equipment for a rehab stint. Or maybe you go for classes that help to push you harder than you'd push yourself. Perhaps you enjoy the OCD precision of a treadmill. I have a gym membership because I love swimming, and for some reason my tiny Brooklyn apartment doesn't have a pool in it. I get it: gyms are great for some things. But if they're all you use, you'll go insane.

Get the Hell Out

And that's not just one man's opinion; science agrees! In a study called "Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review." (seriously, that's the best name you could come up with?) the exercise habits of 833 active adults were poked and prodded. The results:

Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization and positive engagement, decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression, and increased energy. However, the results suggested that feelings of calmness may be decreased following outdoor exercise. Participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date.

Which makes sense. Running is known to trigger your fight or flight responses, and it stands to reason that it does so even more when outdoors. You feel more like you're doing something, because guess what—you're actually doing something. You're exploring a changing environment, and there are many unknowns (cars, squirrels a crack in the sidewalk, a beautiful sunset). That would account for all of the aforementioned positive benefits as well as the decrease of calm—after a fight or flight event one tends to be a bit wound up.

But there's another side-effect; because the outdoors contains those unknown, it contains more potential danger. That, combined with the innate novelty of running in an uncontrolled environment, releases more adrenaline into your system. Adrenaline release is caused by a dopamine surge. Dopamine, in turn, triggers your brain's reward system and makes you feel good. In other words, "runner's high" is a real thing, and you're more likely to get it by running (or biking or swimming) outdoors. And like all things that get you high, it's liable to be addictive. So, since running outside is more likely to get you your fix of those endorphins, you're more likely to think about it and actually want to do it. You can make addiction work for you, basically.

And then there's the difference between exercising under the sun and under harsh fluorescent gym lights. A 1983 M.I.T. study concluded that animals exposed to bright light had higher levels of dopamine. And in 2007, Simon N. Young of McGill University wrote an article for The Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience explaining that several studies have shown that exposure to bright light such as sunlight increases serotonin levels in the brain, which is essential for mental and physical health. Also, exposure to sunlight causes our skin to produce vitamin D, an essential nutrient (vitamin D deficiencies have been linked to depression and lack of energy).

Less Pain, More Gain

You know what else releases endorphins and is addictive? Fun. If you are having fun while exercising, not only will you be less focused on your labored breathing and heavying limbs, but you will come to associate exercise with fun, further increasing the likelihood that you will re-engage in said activity. It's true. You ran really hard when you played soccer as a kid, and you were eager to go do it again (on a Saturday, no less). Lifting a heavy stack of weights may give you a sense of accomplishment, but it's not fun. Seriously, nobody picks things up and puts them down recreationally. And if you do, you should investigate more hobbies.

So what should you do? Whatever you like doing. If it's dancing, dance more. If it's rock-climbing, go rock-climbing. Join a dodgeball team, or a running club, or sign up for yoga classes, or go hiking. What sounds like fun to you, personally? Do more of that, as often as you can. You'll work harder—and address a wider range of muscle groups—when you're enjoying what you're doing. Not only will this get you into better shape, but it'll also increase your overall happiness.

Mimic Your Models

Say, for example, you wish you had Michael Phelps' body. Michael Phelps didn't become a great swimmer because he had an amazing body, but he got that amazing body because he swam all the time. Form rises to meet function (of course, those flat feet and broad shoulders don't hurt either).

The same thing goes for people who take up surfing, yoga, running. Obviously, what you eat remains important, and so is the intensity at which you engage. If you want to look like Michael Phelps you're not going to get like that by just lackadaisically doggie-paddling a few laps. But if you continue to push yourself—safely and healthily, but continuously—your body will adapt, and that adaptation may take the form of the body you desire.

And you can do it without wanting to blow your brains out.

Image credit: Shutterstock/unkreativ