DOING IT OUTSIDE
TO GET FITTER, FASTER
The world’s wittiest ‘evidence-based’ personal trainer, Matt Linsdell, shares a touching account of how he overcame his childhood agoraphobia. We now have a hard time keeping him still. Training tips and more from our Fitness Guru – just get your butt to over page 47.
DOING IT OUTSIDE
The weather channel said it was - 23 degrees Celsius. And that’s before you factored in the wind. With the windchill effect, it felt closer to - 40 degrees Celsius. Ten kilometres separate me from my work, but this morning I had decided to run there. I know it sounds crazy, but after kitting myself in warm and breathable clothing I did it. And you know what? Even in that weather it felt good. Very good. It wasn’t always like that. When I was a teenager, I was crippled with anxiety. Leaving the house was terrifying because I didn’t feel safe. Much of my adolescent existence would fit nicely in a box labelled agoraphobia – although I was never diagnosed as having it. But one evening in my late teens, my mother convinced me to go for a walk with her. It was a cold winter night so the walk was brisk. I left the house feeling apprehensive but returned home feeling… good. And “good” was something I had not felt in a long time. After months of living in a prison of seemingly endless anxiety, my evening walk had, for the first time, offered relief from my anguish. As we strolled together, my heart raced and my eyes widened – but not from panic. That brief, energetic experience snowballed to ultimately change the way I saw the outside world and my place in it. More than that, it changed the way I felt about myself. I went on to learn how to jog and then run: each time I ventured out, an exercise-induced exhilaration gave me a way to cope with my highly-strung ‘fight-or-flight’ responses. Being outside had suddenly given me a sense of comfort. And even as my muscle fibres slid back and forth and my heart rate increased, I remained calm.
Kicking the treadmill
In the late 1990’s I had read about research that describes how aerobic exercise (the kind of exercise that makes you get out of breath) could positively affect many psychological disorders, such as depression. It was gratifying to learn that there was scientific evidence that aligned with my reality. More recently, I have explored the research linking exercise and the mitigation of mental illness in greater depth. Decades of research all reach one unequivocal conclusion: exercise is good for the mind. Very good. (Just search for ‘exercise and mental health’ in Google Scholar if you’re in any doubt.) As an evidence-based personal trainer, I can tell you about the fitness benefits that outdoor exercise brings. Running, for example, helps your bones and muscles. But treadmill and trail running are not the same thing: treadmill running means running in a straight line and so doesn’t allow for much lateral movement, whereas a trail leaves your body needing to deal with a changing terrain. Outdoor trails twist from left to right and pitch up and down, causing your ankles and knees to compensate. (Hey, you might even have to jump over a puddle or two!) And, in moderation, this can be a very healthy stress on your bones, ligaments and tendons. Over time, muscles, tendons, and bones will strengthen, and fitness improvements will be great. Assuming, of course, that you don’t trip and crack your skull open. I personally don’t jog with a helmet... yet.
Making a hard cycle feel easy
Cycling outdoors has its benefits too. Unlike indoor cycling, the outdoor variety tends to involve longer rides. Many people will get on a ‘spin’ bike or cycle ergometer and program in a set amount of time. In contrast, outdoor riding lends itself to pedalling for longer, undoubtedly
due to the ‘fun factor’ of being outside: a half hour can easily extend into a ride of an hour or more. Experiments also show this: cycling indoors feels harder than outdoors even if the exertion is identical. Hills will cause you to use more force in your pedal strokes, taxing different groups of muscles and causing you to waffle back and forth between aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Aerobic exercise (also incorrectly called ‘cardio’) is the low intensity exercise you can sustain for a long time. Anaerobic exercise is the gruelling, high intensity workout. Fast-slow exercise, like what you do on a bike, is called ‘interval training’ and is very good for improving heart strength, lung capacity and overall fitness. Even if you’ve never heard of interval training, encountering hills will force you to do it. Providing you don’t stop and walk your bike up the hill, that is. Fitness tip: once you get to the top of the hill, try not to stop pedalling. Keep an even force on the pedals and go at your regular pace until your breathing returns to normal.
Get shredded in the sun
Of course, you can also weight-train outdoors. Bodyweight training in a park is one of my favourite things to do. Obvious exercises are chin-ups, push ups, and dips. Lunges can be done anywhere and rows performed on an angle can prove challenging even for a wellconditioned weightlifter. It is hard work, of course, but doing it outside makes it more enjoyable: a recent analysis of all published exercise research concluded that training in natural environments gives a greater sense of wellbeing than doing it inside. Sticking to a regular exercise regime is also considerably easier if done outside. Training outside will also allow you to soak up the sun’s rays, which will help your body to create vitamin D. (Just use your head and wear sunscreen if you plan to be in direct sun for a long period of time.) If you are accustomed to exercising indoors, then try a few sessions outside and see what happens. It can be argued that it is more dangerous to exercise outdoors, but hopefully you can appreciate how much greater the benefits can be. Risks can be mitigated: wear a bike helmet, don’t run in the midday sun, wear lights and reflective clothes at night or in the early morning, train with a friend and add a bullet proof vest if you’re doing push ups in a dodgy neighbourhood. Go outside my friends and get under some sky.
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Prof John Ratey This is a book that distils all the current science behind how exercise can positively affect the brain. It is essential reading for anyone interested in how the mind and body work together.
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. Change of muscle activation patterns in uphill cycling of varying slope. Laboratory versus outdoor cycling conditions: differences in pedaling biomechanics.