The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday February 8th

Taking a step of the treadmill

	<p>Holly Beilin</p>
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Holly Beilin

Anyone who knows me knows that unless I get a decent dose of exercise — and the post-workout rush of endorphins — I’m a bit … cranky. And I’m not alone. Studies show that, along with the obvious physical benefits of movin’ and groovin’, there are awesome mental benefits: better creativity and memory, and decreased anxiety and stress.

However, recently I decided to do something pretty counterintuitive for all the gym rats out there: to step off the treadmill and put down the weights.

Believe me, the convenience of the climate-controlled, precipitation-free gym is a draw, especially in winter. But the outdoors has its allures too.

First of all, outdoor exercise is, on average, more physically strenuous. You stride differently when running outdoors; you have to flex your ankles more on real hills. Running downhill creates bodily movements that aren’t possible on a treadmill, training different muscles. Wind resistance and changes in terrain make outdoor cycling, jogging or even walking more arduous as well.

But there are other advantages to exercising outdoors. One is exposure to the sun, which is a known mood-lifter and source of vitamin D. I also think there must be a biological draw — for the majority of human history, we worked, played and lived outdoors.

Whatever the reason, outside exercisers report more vitality, enthusiasm and self-esteem and less tension, depression and fatigue after working out.

And though you might be improving your own health in a gym, your routine is almost certainly hurting the health of the planet. One treadmill can burn the equivalent of 15 75-watt light bulbs while in use, and it still uses energy in standby mode. The cramped quarters at a crowded gym also makes energy-sucking fans and air conditioning necessary.

Finally, I was struck by this simple fact, cited by a friend who is an avid hiker and mountain climber: gym memberships have been climbing since the 1980s and are at an all-time high, but the obesity epidemic has been worsening every year; the collective body mass of all Americans is greater than ever before. When plotted on a graph, the two lines rise in sync together.

I’m not blaming gyms for obesity, but that observation, plus the promise of fall foliage (a.k.a. Instagram-induced jealousy from friends who still live in the perpetual summer of South Florida), was enough to get me to hit a trail instead of the gym the past few weekends. I’ve always run outdoors, but I’ve found that hiking allows me to appreciate nature: the colors, stillness and sense of peace in a forest have made my exercise routine less of a routine and more of an experience.

All the trails were a short drive away, and none were very strenuous. And this weekend, at the Eno River State Park in Durham, I felt more relaxed and in the moment than I have in a while (even as my calves burned from the uphill climbs).

I’m not making any promises yet. I still love a good spin class and I refuse to run in the snow. But the gym may now take a backseat in my exercise routine.

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