Here's Why the Park Is Better Than the Gym

Joe Holder
·5 mins read

I’ve been in NYC for the majority of the COVID pandemic. Gyms are just starting to re-open here. But the last six months have made me wonder if we even need them at all. Since March, I’ve been improvising. At the very start of the pandemic, when there was still a chill in the air, I started doing everything from Instagram Live workouts with Naomi Campbell to jumping jacks in my apartment and realized it was very possible to do more with less. As the weather started to improve and gyms were still not open, I began to worry my “gains” would disappear, especially given the dumbbell and kettlebell shortage that made it almost impossible to get weights to use at home. But after a quick bout of self-pity I realized I still had access to gym—1,700 of them to be exact, because New York City has that many parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities across the five boroughs.

I began to combine workouts with some playtime at my favorite parks. Seward Park has basketball courts for solo fadeaways. Prospect and Central have huge grassy fields to run around. East River has a track and a calisthenics area to play around on. I shouldn’t have been worried about those gains—in fact, I did not lose any muscle mass after not stepping foot in the gym over the course of 6 months. In fact, I got in better shape.

I’m here to say now that actually having fun while you work out might do that for you. You can argue that a gym is still necessary—and it totally is, for lots of goals. But before the cold really sets in we all should go play. Don’t count sets and reps, just pick up a ball, a racquet, a frisbee, or even a rock. (It is still hard to get dumbbells!)

Get outside and soak it in.
Get outside and soak it in.

Find your fun. For me it is often picking up a basketball and shooting in between bouts working with a jump rope and resistance bands, reminiscing of the high school days when winning county seemed like a national championship. Skying for lay-ups and the occasional dunk to make sure that my legs still have a little juice. Running safely with a small group of friends on the track. Or just simply jaunting around in the park with my family or friends, doing a cartwheel in the grass poorly enough to make a five year old giggle.

The main reason to play is to enjoy moving your body. But there are some other benefits, too. It’s a great way to get some unstructured motion into your routine. Fitness culture is a bit dominated by structured movement—the idea that every exercise has to be with perfect form. Of course, things like squats and deadlifts should be done properly—you’ll hurt yourself otherwise. But next time you watch your favorite sport, check out how the athletes move. Federer lunging for that serve, Harden going up for an off-balance three pointer. Athletes often get into extreme positions without injury because they practice moving their body. They play. This is the missing link in a lot of workouts—they should allow us to move our body in any direction we want without injuring ourselves. What I’m saying is: go to the park and pretend to be LeBron, because it’s good for you!

The whole idea is to go out and do whatever seems fun—but here are three ideas to get you started.

Grown Up Monkey Bars

Find a playground or a calisthenics area—anywhere you can hang and swing around. This time, instead of counting reps and doing pull-ups, just explore the different ways you can move your body. Set a 30 minute timer and try out (safely) as many new exercises as you can think of using the equipment—hang from one arm, kick your legs up in the air, have fun with it.

Bust Out Your Racket

Play some real tennis if you have a partner, sure, but also if you don't. Many parks have a tennis wall where you can practice your stroke. It’s also a good way to work on your cardio if, in between bouts of wall hits, you add in a few bodyweight strength moves or higher-intensity bursts. Think jumping jacks, push-ups, side shuffles. If you're feeling masochistic, do a burpee whenever you loose your rally.

Try Some “Speed Play”

Serious runners often do a workout called a fartlek—that's quite literally Swedish for “speed play.” It was developed in the 1930s by the Swedish national cross country team coach Gösta Holmér, who was looking to pump some life into his athletes. Sounds intense, right? Not at all—all you need to do is play around while you're out jogging. Instead of plodding along slightly bored, throw in a burst of speed to the next crosswalk, to pass that walker, up that hill—whenever you feel like it.

I’m a fan of running but let’s be honest: it can get tedious. So I like to do this with stop lights when I’m in the city: Pick a light and run at it for at 80 percent intensity, then go down to 60 percent. play around with different markers—use trees if you're out in the country—and don’t drop below 60 percent or go higher than 85.

The most important aspect of any fitness program is that you actually stick to it, and going out and having fun is a great way to get some movement in without needing to feel like you’re working for it. I know many of us think we will be young forever, but age creeps up, so let’s refresh one lesson we all learned as kids—playtime is the best part of the day.

Joe Holder

Introducing the exercise snack.

Originally Appeared on GQ