The hottest new gym? The outdoors Handwritten text echoing the title

How having the brakes slammed on by lockdown made me reconsider what it meant to be outdoors

By Ellis Di Cataldo

A photo of Ellis Di Cataldo

A couple of years ago back when we were all living pretty different lives and didn’t have a collective understanding of the phrase ‘social distancing’, I was pretty active. My daily commute to work included an hour of city walking and I was at the gym five times a week.

Then lockdown hit and slammed the brakes on all that activity. At first, not having a 6am alarm for the gym was quite nice. But the novelty faded quick.

Limited to one outdoor adventure a day created a real need to be in nature that I didn’t even know was possible. I mean, nature was always just there. We could go out into it whenever, right?

Funnily enough I didn’t have that same feeling towards the gym. My perception there had changed. Far from being a place of fitness and wellbeing, those rows of treadmills and squat racks now felt like they were a breeding ground for germs and I wasn’t about to get sick for the sake of gains.

At the other end of the scale, taking a workout outdoors seemed like peak health. Movement, blood flowing, fresh air, the sound of birds and feeling of sunshine on my skin. It felt like it was all contributing to something bigger than simply hitting a PB.

I’m also a bit of a nerd when it comes to fitness and got excited when I noticed that exercising outside led to some cool and unexpected benefits.

Proprioception is our body’s ability to sense its own positioning and movement. It’s how we’re able to balance on one leg or know whether we’re running on a rocky trail or smooth cement path. I spent a little of summer 2021 on the Norfolk coast and running along the beach and across sand dunes gave me a type of resistance I’d never experienced on a treadmill.

I was refining my balance, control and coordination - my proprioception - without having to do the maths on training systems and reps and sets.

Plus, it all felt like play. Running, jumping and climbing outside is fun.

By far I’m not the only one who had this realisation while shaking sand out of their Nike Pegasus’. Thanks to an increase of 82% in outdoor activity, the UK came out on top as the world’s most active nation in 2020.

There’s no doubt about it, the past two years have redefined our understanding of and approach to wellness. Or rather, has it accelerated it? As in, were we always on the path to this more holistic and natural way of exercising and the timeline just got sped up?

Nature being important for our wellbeing is no longer a niche or hippie concept. From Forestry England providing advice on how to forest bathe to The National Trust announcing plans to link cities directly to the countryside because “research has shown that engaging with nature is good for our wellbeing”, everyone is talking about getting outside because being outside is good for us.

Of course it is. Being outside is inherently human.

“We’re outdoor creatures. We’re built to be outside. All the evidence shows that too much time spent away from green space can lead to chronic stress and other issues” says Dominic Higgins, the first-ever Nature and Wellbeing Manager at The Wildlife Trusts.

By working out outside, we’re not only getting the physical benefits of whatever activity we’re doing, but the mental gains too. According to Natural England, 9 in 10 people agreed that natural spaces are good for mental health and wellbeing.

This doesn’t mean we have to head out on ultra-length forest treks or wild adventures deep in the heart of a mountain to feel the benefits of nature. Not everybody has the time or lives next door to woodlands or a park. But, there’s adventure everywhere. There’s value in every step outdoors.

Similarly, gyms most definitely still have their place within the world of fitness. I mean, I’m back in one and am enjoying it again. But I see it now as a piece to the puzzle. Not one or the other - outdoors or in.

And that’s what’s really exciting about this perception shift, because it makes exercise available to everyone. The idea that to be fit means lifting barbells and grinding on a static bike has gone. Fitness and wellbeing don’t sit exclusively behind a gym membership anymore.

Far from it in fact, as our very real, very human need to be outdoors is wellbeing too. And it’s being nurtured at the same time.

We’ve created an app. We’re a tech company. But we appreciate nature, in fact it sits at the heart of Byrd and is in everything we build and design.

Far from being a fitness technology company who keeps you attached to a bike or screen indoors, we want to help propel this change of taking fitness outside. Turning steps into meaningful movement. Sessions into adventures. Have-tos into raring-tos.

And hey, we’re through January now. The evenings are getting lighter and we’ve not needed huge puffer jackets quite so often. If there’s ever a time to get out into nature, now’s it.