Green exercise isn’t about recycling your water bottles or reducing the environmental impact of your sneakers; both good goals, to be sure. It’s about being active in nature.
Coined in 2003 by researchers in the UK, green exercise refers to exercise in natural, outdoor environments. “Green exercise recognizes the mental and physical health benefits of being physically active in nature,” says Amy Bantham, DrPH, national spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise's Moving Together Outside campaign.
You don’t need to have access to backcountry trails or high peaks, either. There’s a lot under the green exercise umbrella: logging your runs outside, walking your dog in a park, doing beachside yoga flows or shredding down a snowy mountain. And if you’ve ever done any of these things, you probably left feeling more energized and inspired to go back for more. Your clients experience the same benefits.
Sweating outside is hardly new, but the pandemic created a green exercise wave. In 2020, 53 percent of Americans ages 6 and over participated in outdoor recreation—like walking, biking, climbing or skiing—at least once, the highest participation rate ever recorded, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report. And the popularity of outdoor workouts has continued past initial lockdowns: “It’s third on the American College of Sports Medicine’s top fitness trends for 2022, up from number 17 in 2019,” says Bantham. (Read more about the latest fitness industry trends.)
Now that many gyms and studios have reopened, people may turn back to their indoor sweat sessions—but many are hooked on the unique rewards of sweating outside and will continue to incorporate green exercise into their routines. Your clients can use Wix Fit’s scheduling software to book sessions with you in multiple locations: outside, in the gym or virtually. (Related: Why hybrid fitness is the future of working out)
The benefits of green exercise
You already know that exercise, in general, serves up a slew of health benefits for anyone involved. Green exercise offers even more: Outdoor activity reduces stress, depression and blood pressure, and increases mood, self-esteem and well-being,” says Bantham. (More: 5 ways trainers can help with the mental health crisis)
Indeed, University of Essex research shows just five minutes of outdoor exercise can improve self-esteem and mood, and that spending 120 minutes in nature each week (exercising or otherwise) is linked to the greatest level of health and wellbeing. (Any more, and levels don’t go down, but simply plateau.)
“There's nothing better than applying your strength to an activity you love.”
Again, you can score these health benefits whether you’re being physically active in an urban park or a remote forest, says Bantham. But if you can seek out spaces with grass, trees, lakes or rivers, you’ll be even better off. Greenery and water enhance the beneficial effects of green exercise, according to that University of Essex study.
That’s great news for exercise professionals, too. Your clients may be more likely to return if you’re teaching or training outside. Research suggests greener environments encourage greater levels of participation. The meditative effect of being in nature can help distract from the monotony, boredom or physical discomfort that can arise during exercise, and can even make workouts feel easier. That means clients can push themselves harder and likely see more results.
Taking your coaching outside
When the pandemic hit, Amanda Margusity, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in New York City, was faced with unemployment, like many other fitness instructors.
She started hosting virtual cycling, HIIT, and bootcamp classes, but after a few months, she wanted to reconnect with her community outside. When she first called up the manager of her neighborhood park, he told her it was a wild idea—but something they could make happen.
By summer 2020, she was running HIIT and bootcamp classes outdoors in a park in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “People were excited, and they loved being outside,” she says. “There was nothing better than waking up for 6:00 am, 7:00 am class, and working out with the sun rising over top of you.”
About a year later, L1 CrossFit-certified coach and Wix Fit user, Rose Bishop, moved to Leavenworth, Washington and opened Alpine Fit, a functional training gym dedicated to preparing people in the Cascade Mountains for all their active outdoor hobbies. She conducted classes outside at a local school; not only was it a free space, but it was also approachable for people with lingering COVID concerns. “I started with a whiteboard, a little speaker and a group of about eight women,” she says. From there, word of the class spread. “I ended up teaching 45 individual women over a course of two months.”
Of course, Margusity and Bishop weren’t the only ones taking their business outdoors. “Many health and fitness professionals pivoted to outdoor offerings out of necessity during lockdowns, and they have continued to offer them because of consumer demand,” says Bantham.
Tips for adding green exercise to your offerings
Training outside has a ton of benefits, but there are some unique challenges to address before you get started. Here’s how to make green exercise part of your fitness business.
Play by the rules
Every city or town has different rules around what’s allowed in public spaces such as school playgrounds and parks. For example, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation only requires permits for groups of 20 people or more, but securing a permit can give you extra allowances like reserving a specific space, bringing in equipment such as canopies or tables, or playing loud music.
To train in The Royal Parks in London, you’ll need to prove your fitness qualifications to apply for a license and pay a fee depending on the location and number of participants. In Sydney, you’ll need to sign a code of conduct and submit an application to train in parks. When in doubt, reach out to someone in your local parks and recreation department to confirm you have everything you need.
When you’re coaching in a gym or studio, the facility may require you have liability insurance to train in the space. This insurance can help protect you if a client makes legal claims against you due to injury or dissatisfaction, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. When working outdoors, you may not be required to hold liability insurance, but it’s an industry standard and a good idea to have it just in case, according to NASM. After all, the outdoor environment is a bit more unpredictable than a gym. It’s certainly possible for a client to roll an ankle on a dip in the grass or have an allergic reaction to a bee sting when you’re working out outside. (It doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg, either. Prices can be around $10 to $20 a month, depending on the level of coverage.)
Some cities require you have insurance to train in public parks: In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, you need a valid certificate of liability insurance for $1 million that also lists the Metropolitan Government as an additional insured party. That, plus a permit, a $250 park fee, CPR and fitness certification, driver’s license and completed background check.
Even if you don’t need a permit, meeting and developing a relationship with the manager of the space can pay off big time, says Margusity. (Most public spaces—including parks and beaches—have designated managers, rangers or points of contact in the local parks and recreation system.) That way, you have a supportive point of contact for any logistical issues that arise (think: maintenance and equipment transport).
Get creative with equipment
Of course, if you’re not in a gym or studio, access to equipment is significantly harder. First, consider what you can do without equipment. If you’re a run coach, can you take your clients on a guided run? Can you put together a bodyweight circuit or stair workout? Alternatively, if you’re just starting out and don’t have money to buy (or the means to transport) equipment, ask your clients to “BYO,” whether that means simply bringing a yoga mat or contributing resistance bands, dumbbells or kettlebells, says Margusity. She did that for her first few outdoor HIIT classes, and said people were excited to contribute.
You can always get creative with the environment you’re in: Bishop started out running a class on a school playground, creating circuit workouts that included pull-ups on the playground’s monkey bars, step-ups on benches, running laps around a field and the like. In certain places, you might be able to play music out loud for your classes or clients (again, check your local area for the necessary permits and regulations).
Partner up for even better results
Margusity’s dream was to host a cycling class outside in New York City, but that was easier said than done. Renting a class’s worth of bikes from a major stationary bike brand and getting them transported to a location was so expensive that it was completely out of the question. However, she saw a post in a Facebook group of fitness pros in the NYC area: Someone had unused stationary bikes and was offering bike rental and drop-off. A few more logistical hurdles later, and her cycling classes were a go.
Be honest about your means and what you need. Don’t be afraid to mention that you’re a small operation, says Margusity. “A lot of businesses are willing to help, especially in times like this.” If there’s a company near you that holds silent disco events, for example, reach out and see if they’re willing to rent you their set of headsets when they aren’t being used. This type of partnership is also a solid marketing strategy.
Pick your space wisely
Check for a restroom, shade, a flat surface area and other factors. Example: Margusity had to leave spaces that were filled with mosquitoes and bees nests. Consider where your clients are coming from so you can make their workout commute easier, says Margusity. Also, give your clients a heads up about anything they’ll need to make the experience as comfortable as possible. Think: offering layering tips for cooler weather workouts, reminding them to bring sunscreen and a sweat towel and coming armed with extra water (especially if it’s not available in the workout space). You can add this to the FAQ section of your website or send a fitness newsletter with relevant tips.
Prepare for bad weather
No matter where you live, there’s a chance you’ll run into adverse weather when training outside. Have an action plan ready, and make that clear so clients know what to expect when it’s less than desirable outside. Decide on a time period before the class in which you’ll decide on whether or not it will continue as planned, and email or text participants with an update.
If you need to cancel or relocate, have a plan B. Set up a prior agreement with a local gym, studio or school where you can relocate inside if needed, or have a virtual class option so people can participate at the same time but from their own homes.
Don’t underestimate the enthusiasm of your participants: Margusity planned to halt classes after Halloween due to dropping temps, but her clients begged her to keep them going. The group continued training outdoors through the winter, bundling up and only canceling when there was too much snow or if temperatures clocked in under freezing.
Program with extracurriculars in mind
Make a point to ask your clients if they’re engaging in any other outdoor activities or hobbies. Since so many are based on repetitive motion (running, cycling and hiking), you can help them build strength and improve coordination so that they can avoid injury and perform better when they’re off adventuring.
For example, to train a client for ski season, you might program weighted squats to strengthen the lower body as well as some reactive movement drills, such as box jump overs, to help with agility, says Bishop. Even though some outdoor activities may appear to be lower-body specific, your body is still working as a system, she says.
For example, cyclists can still benefit from a strong back to improve their posture, and core strength and mobility are important for nearly any physical activity. “There’s nothing better than applying your strength to an activity you love,” says Bishop. “It just makes you feel so confident and independent and childlike—you feel that you could do that activity for the rest of your life.”
Never stop improving
When you’re first starting to train outside, it’ll be difficult—and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to try it, even if you’re worried about failure. “Just drop your ego and execute it,” says Margusity. And then you can always restrategize. “There's really no right way to do something.”