Have you thought about travelling lately, or bravely conjured up the idea of moving to another country? I did, five months ago. I moved to the south of France Aix-en-Provence this August 2011 and now reside in Paris. I have been studying one of the most beautiful languages in the world through a study abroad program. Imagine this, tranquil fountains, sunny skies as far as the eye can see, baguettes, croissants, magnificent architecture, romance on the streets, music filling up heart’s as people dreamily saunter down another windy cobble stone street, red wine, white wine, rose, more wine, beaucoup beaucoup… why am I telling you all of this? I thought this was supposed to be a workout blog and now here I am tempting you with smells of food and alluring you with sinful images of carbohydrates!
Being the health enthusiast that I am, I had a lot of questions about the world of fitness in France. How would I get my workouts in? Where would I get my workouts in? Would I still be able to personal train and teach Pilates on the other side of the world? Would taking dance classes be feasible, and would the French look at me like I was a lunatic if I decided to wake up at 6am and go for a run before my studies… (that’s a yes!) Where were the gyms, and would I be able to afford a gym membership, did gyms even exist in France? To some this might sound shallow and absurd, but to those of you who enjoy preserving your health and staying active, I’m sure you can relate.
Unlike the United States, health clubs are very expensive in France and all over Western Europe for that matter. If you’re a gym rat and plan to vacation or move to France or Western Europe anytime soon, I advise you to start getting excited about working out in the great outdoors. Living in the South of France will push you to enjoy your workouts in nature for many reasons, being economic is one of them!
While I enjoyed, hiking, biking and jogging in the open air in the Unites States, I always had the constant pull to just, “go to the gym” out of convienience. Think about it? How many times do you opt to go run on the treadmill after work instead of running outside? I bet ninety percent of you chose the inside workout version. In France, I don’t have this luxury, or crutch rather, and I have been forced to get outdoors and take in the nutritious vitamins of the sun while sweating to a new hill and grassy park each day.
Sometimes, exercising outside on your own can feel like a burden, especially when the weather get’s lousy. After living in France for five months however, having no other choice but to burn calories outside, I can assure you that exercising under the open sky has just as many benefits as the gym and in some cases more! Below are three excellent examples of workouts you can do on your own outdoors, or in a group for free, or at least for very inexpensive. Lose your attachment to the gym from time to time and let the international workout of the outdoors help you climb to the top of the mountain in reaching your fitness goals!
Running with ambiance
In France, everyone runs because the gyms are pricey and running outdoors is free. The popular and celebrated Paris Marathon is another incentive for both serious and casual runners alike to get out there and move. I found a “beau,” (beautiful) park in Aix-en-provence that is perfect for doing running circuits. One lap around the park is a little over one mile. On days when I want to get strict cardio in, I will run four laps around the park keeping a steady pace, staying within my heart rate zone that burns fat, (aerobic workout).
When I want to change things up a bit and get a more intense, (anaerobic) workout that challenges my strength and endurance, I will jog half way around the park at a light pace and then when I get to the hill, I will sprint to the top. I do this 5 to ten times depending on how intense I want my workout to be for the day. There is a grassy patch in the park that stretches about the length of a football field. When I want to work on increasing my speed, I will sprint to one end and rest initially for 60 seconds. I will sprint ten times back and forth and each time I get to the end of one side of the field, my rest time will decrease 5 seconds so that by the last sprint you only have ten seconds to rest. This is an excellent way to work on your (anaerobic threshold), the threshold your body utilizes when burning energy, (without oxygen), it helps increase speed, agility and explosive movements used in sports such as boxing, the long jump, and sprints performed in track and field, for example.
If you don’t like running on your own and need a group to motivate you, there are plenty of running clubs you can join both in France and the USA that are very cheap for the year. This is an excellent way to get inspiration from a running coach and other runners. The running groups range in level from those just starting out to those who run semi professionally, you can always find a running group to suit your particular running needs.
Take a class in the park
Are you sick of taking overcrowded classes in your local gym? Is it packed, sweaty and smelly? How about trying a motivating or tranquil group exercise class in the park!! In Aix-en-Provence you can choose from a variety of classes to take in the park ranging from boot camp, to yoga, to Thai chi! Because the classes are taught outdoors and the teachers don’t have the overhead of a gym to pay for, most of the classes are very cheap and some you can even find for free.
I was teaching a Pilates class once a week at ten Euros per class, 5 Euros for students which is a steal if you’re used to paying for classes that normally range from 15 to 35 dollars per class. Not only will your wallet thank you for choosing a class in the park, but your body and mind will too. The invigorating scents of the fresh air, the warmth of the sun, and the stillness of nature will push your mind and body to new heights, forcing you to be focused, calm and energized, depending on what class you choose to take.
Stretching under the trees
As everyone knows, or should know, stretching is one of the most important exercises anyone can do before and after a workout. It’s important to get your muscles warmed up and stretched out before you begin your workout, and of course, afterwards, it’s imperative to stretch out all those muscles you tightened up.
I like to think of the muscles as a hose. The more kinked up and twisted a hose gets, the less likely it is to work efficiently, and eventually the hose will break if you don’t untangle it and you will have to buy a new one. Much like muscles, it’s important to stretch for at least 15 minutes after working out, stretching all of the major muscles used, and holding the stretches for at least 30 seconds without bouncing, but instead, holding a static stretch so the muscles get time to elongate. If a person goes too long without stretching, eventually they will tear or strain a muscle or tendon.
Many of the people I personal train despise stretching and don’t have the patience for it. Stretching is meant to be done in a tranquil and quiet setting that feels safe and exudes peaceful energy. What better place to find all of this than the outdoors! Find a nearby park, a grassy knoll, even your backyard under a tree to stretch. When you stretch outside in the calming ease of nature, your mind is able to turn off from the stresses of the day. You can use the outdoors as your stretching sanctuary to not only open up your tight muscles and joints, but also, to slow down and take moment to breath and meditate in a place that’s not over crowded like a gym or gym classes. Stretching is a time to unwind and let go of stress, what better way to do this than heading outside to your favorite peaceful spot.
I hope this article helped some of you gym crazed individuals expand your workouts to the great outdoors. Remember, working out outside is not only better for your peace of mind, but it’s more of a challenge on your body too. When we work out outside we use many more muscles than when simply going to the gym and hopping on the treadmill or spin bike. The outdoors has grades, inclines and surfaces our body’s muscles are not used to, thus the workouts become more intense, we burn more calories and tone up quicker.
When your body get’s used to the same old routine at the gym you plateau, the outdoors forces us to push past this plateau by getting creative with our workouts and often it inspires us to work out harder because of the fresh air and sun. Now that the winter is upon us, don’t let that stop you from working out outdoors. Running in the cold is a great way to raise your cardiovascular stamina, just remember to stretch, stretch, stretch, especially when it’s chilly. So, next time you think about heading to the gym for that familiar workout you have done hundreds of times before, think about the benefits of the international workout and toss the cardio machines aside for a run in the park, or the suggestions I listed above and enjoy!