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Some gym junkies are seeing the benefit of exercising in the great outdoors

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It wasn’t the crushing blow I anticipated. Traversing hiking paths near my house and reveling in late-afternoon bike rides on traffic-light streets, I transitioned from faithful gym junkie to outdoor-activity seeker in mere days. And I’ve got plenty of company. 

There’s widespread evidence of a surge in outdoor activity since the pandemic hit. Statistics from the research firm NPD Group show an enormous rise in the purchasing of bikes in March — a 55 percent or greater spike in adult lifestyle, fitness and mountain bikes — and other outdoor gear. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which advocates for bike and hiking trails and tracks their usage, has recorded dramatic increases since mid-March. People have crowded into local, state and national parks, even in places with stay-at-home orders.

 Outdoor activity has become so popular during the pandemic that some cities have stepped in to ease congestion on sidewalks and trails. Cities such as Oakland, Calif.; Charlotte; Seattle; and Washington have closed some streets to through traffic to allow walking, jogging and scooter riding. 

 Some of the people crowding the streets and trails have headed outdoors because most other recreational activities — think shopping, moviegoing, sports-playing and dining out — were put on hold. But many others appear to be former die-hard gymgoers who pivoted from sweat-soaked, tightly sealed indoor fitness centers to outdoor exercise out of a simple desire to stay in shape.

Running, biking and hiking apps have made it easier for gym enthusiasts to move their workouts outdoors. One such digital service is AllTrails, which offers 100,000-plus trail guides used by more than 20 million people of varying fitness levels. AllTrails, which typically sees its peak engagement days in July or August, has experienced unprecedented usage amid the coronavirus shutdowns, according to spokeswoman Meaghan Praznik. In March, it tracked trail activity at three times the rate of normal peak days. The fastest uptick occurred in hikes between two and eight miles, a range Praznik says generally indicates a hike for workout purposes. For some former gym addicts such as myself, these activities have brought unexpected benefits.     

 Consider 30-year-old Chris Mannen of Hoboken, N.J. Since losing close to 100 pounds in high school, he’s been a committed exerciser, pushing himself through fitness and training programs centered mainly around gyms. Before the coronavirus closures, he would take classes at a nearby CrossFit gym four days a week, supplementing them with running and yoga. 

 No stranger to physical challenges, Mannen — who recently completed his first 50-kilometer ultramarathon — says he thrives on the personal challenge of the strenuous classes he had come to rely on, as well as the camaraderie and motivation from other participants. He was a little upset when he realized his gym would be closing indefinitely. But the disappointment didn’t last long. 

 To begin with, Mannen has found a work-at-home diversion that never would have been possible pre-coronavirus, because of traffic — midday bike rides around Hoboken. “They’re simple one-to-three-mile bike rides around the city, with nice views of Manhattan,” he said. They don’t replace an all-out workout, but they’re not intended to. “It’s a mind-clearing activity that I do sporadically throughout the day,” he said.

 For more-serious workouts, Mannen has begun incorporating regular hikes into his exercise regimens. He dedicates one day a week to a long hike, often with his brother, who is quarantining with him. “I need my weekly dose of nature,” said Mannen, adding that these regular hikes have become bright spots during the shutdowns. 

 At first, Mannen’s goal was simply to get out and be in nature. “It allows for me to be fully present in what I am doing, with zero distractions,” he said of hiking. But over time, he has begun using hiking to test his stamina. Last week, he completed a 10-mile hike. 

 Although physically challenging, the hikes don’t produce the same type of stress on his body as the weight training and CrossFit movements he’s used to. “I’ve noticed my body feels a ton better,” Mannen said. “I’m just not hammering my joints as much as I used to.” 

 Josh Levinson, 48, can relate. The Baltimore-area resident and owner of specialty shoe company Charm City Run had in recent years begun to incorporate intense workouts with a personal trainer multiple times a week. With the shutdowns, that option disappeared. Also going away? The feeling of wear and tear on his body, as he’s returned to a simpler regimen of running outdoors and stretching. “I’ve gone 60 straight days of running outside,” he said. “I think I’m going to keep this going.” 

Springtime weather has made Levinson’s outdoor running streak easy to maintain. He describes early-morning runs as a welcome respite from the pandemic’s grip. “People are losing their jobs. They’re sick. It’s terrible,” he said. But it’s easy to forget, momentarily, while running in the cool morning air as the sun comes up. “Things suddenly don’t seem so bad,” Levinson said. 

Jeff Mason, a 61-year-old resident of San Ramon, Calif., reports similarly enjoying his pandemic-adjusted workouts. Participating in high-intensity interval training classes for the past two years at an Orangetheory fitness studio allowed the self-described “very fit” Mason to elevate his heart rate for extended periods. Now, for exercise, he’s almost exclusively hiking in the hills near his house. 

 “I forgot how much I enjoy this form of exercise — fresh air, sunsets, more time with my wife or dog,” he said. “With the social isolation, it is critical that I get outdoors.” 

 Despite the upsides of outdoor exercise, some still pine for their gyms. Taylor Tichenor, a 25-year-old resident of Fishers, Ind., counts herself among this group. The former collegiate swimmer turned endurance athlete says she wanted to cry when she learned the Pilates studio where she took classes several times weekly was closing indefinitely. “My Pilates studio isn’t just a place I work out but a community of strong women that build me up,” she said.

Mason concurs. “I can’t wait until they can open again,” he said, noting that people from the fitness studio are like a second family to him. But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop hiking. “I was hiking quite a bit before I joined Orangetheory,” he said, “and I will try and find the same balance between hiking and OT when they can open back up.”

While it’s impossible to predict with certainty what will happen as the pandemic recedes, industry analysts don’t anticipate people flocking back to gyms. In April, the market research firm IBISWorld predicted  further coronavirus-related declines in the fitness-club industry this year. Matt Powell, senior sports-industry adviser at NPD Group, said he believes the need for social distancing will continue to keep people away from such facilities, which he refers to as “one of the scariest places to go right now.” Fellow NPD analyst Dirk Sorenson wrote in a recent blog post that he sees no reason for the recent increase in biking to wane.

 Those within the outdoor fitness world agree. “As a society, it feels like we’re going back to wanting the calm and the beauty and the peace that screens, gyms, aren’t able to give us,” said Ron Schneidermann, chief executive of AllTrails.

Kristine Stratton, president and CEO of the National Recreation and Park Association, said that during times of crisis, such as the Great Recession and 9/11, there’s a tendency for people to focus on locally accessible activities, such as visiting parks. And once people have positive experiences outdoors, they have reason to return. “It does have a sustained and positive impact on our physical and mental health,” Stratton said.  

As for my post-coronavirus fitness plans, I just might continue to substitute Saturday-morning Pilates classes with local hikes. Increasing road traffic may push me to abandon my newly established urban bike rides. But rather than ditch my bike and return to the elliptical machine when my gym reopens, I might seek out nearby bike-trail routes instead. 

Heubeck is a freelance writer from Baltimore.

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