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Brown, Kelsey M.Ed.; Stanforth, Dixie Ph.D.

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal 21(1):p 10-15, January/February 2017. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000264
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Fitness professionals constantly search for ways to keep current exercisers committed while simultaneously engaging the inactive majority. Finding strategies that overcome common barriers to exercise such as time, cost, and enjoyment is challenging for all participants. Most readers are familiar with the disheartening statistics regarding physical activity (PA) indicating that 79.2% of Americans do not achieve the guidelines for aerobic conditioning and muscle strengthening activities (3). Even those with the best intentions don’t always achieve the level of recommended PA because only 44% of gym users show up to the gym two or more times a week, with the average gym member making it only four times a month (2). Clearly, most adults would benefit from greater levels of physical activity, reducing their risk of developing numerous medical conditions (7).

To increase PA, venues beyond the traditional gym setting are an appealing alternative. The outdoor environment offers a great space for movement that is convenient, affordable, and less intimidating than a gym setting. Recent research shows that outdoor exercise increases participant adherence (6), enjoyment, and exercise-related satisfaction (9). Outdoor exercise also overcomes the cost burden associated with many indoor training facilities.

Various exercise protocols can be adapted to the outdoor environment in settings such as parks, stadiums, or participants’ backyards. When the weather isn’t conducive for outdoor PA, similar options include covered parking areas, malls, or even workplace stairwells. By looking at these spaces as potential training settings, you can explore new ways to help others participate in regular PA. This article helps fitness professionals evaluate available outdoor spaces and develop workouts that are enjoyable and adaptable for individuals with varying fitness levels.


Although training sessions are typically conducted at indoor fitness facilities, a growing body of research reveals the advantages of being active outdoors (1,5,6,9). Outdoor exercise, recently tagged green exercise, delivers health benefits beyond those of indoor exercise. Green exercise can improve mood and self-esteem in as little as 5 minutes (1) and reduce feelings of tension, anger, and depression (9). The increased enjoyment derived from green exercise also is linked to stronger exercise adherence (6). Preliminary research suggests that outdoor exercise elicits lower ratings of perceived exertion, resulting in higher self-selected exercise intensities (4,8). By using outdoor spaces, fitness professionals can reduce facility costs while increasing participant enjoyment. Thus, professionals who are adept at creating outdoor programs in a variety of settings increase their potential reach and effectiveness.


It is easy to “go green” with PA. Many participants perform aerobic conditioning outside because they walk or run through neighborhoods, greenbelts, or nearby stadium tracks. Body weight training (BWT), an efficient method to improve muscular strength and endurance (5), also can be structured into outdoor workouts. Requiring nothing beyond the weight of one’s own body, BWT overcomes common obstacles like space and equipment. It is interesting to note that for many individuals, BWT is often significantly more load than they might lift on a machine or with dumbbells. Moreover, BWT typically involves multiple joints and functional movement patterns that can be regressed or progressed to meet individual needs (5) and adapts readily to one’s environment. Parks and stadiums provide ideal settings with hilly or uneven surfaces, fixed objects of varying heights, and open space. In addition, portable equipment such as resistance bands, suspension trainers, medicine balls, or cones can be incorporated to add challenge and variety. These training tools can be especially useful in open spaces that lack features of a built environment.


Given its accessibility and cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and psychological benefits, outdoor training is an excellent tool to include in your training repertoire. Looking at your available outdoor settings and asking, “What can I do here?” is the first step in creating new movement experiences. Training yourself to identify creative ways to use an available space means a column becomes an opportunity for a wall sit or push-up… a railing offers a way to pull… a business park becomes a walking track.

Outdoor workouts can be structured for participants with varying fitness levels and goals. Elements to consider include workout structure, exercise intensity, exercise selection, available equipment, and environment.

Workout Structure

Outdoor sessions can be designed in many safe and effective ways. Regularly incorporating multiple structures and styles into outdoor programming provides a fresh take on your space, keeping clients engaged and facing new movement challenges.

Personal or group sessions can use circuit-themed ideas that include a series of exercises that are either time or rep based. Partner work can add an element of fun, giving the workout either a playful or more competitive feel. Other circuit training strategies that translate well to the outdoors include:

  1. Tabata-style intervals — 8 rounds of 20-second high-intensity intervals with 10-second recovery after each.
  2. Super sets — Exercises performed back to back with no rest. Options include reciprocal movements like pushing/pulling, alternating between lower/upper body, etc.
  3. Ladders — Multiple exercises performed in a row as a set with an increasing number of repetitions each set. For example, squats, push-ups, and lunges would be performed as a set that includes a sequence of 4-6-8-10 repetitions.
  4. Pyramids — Multiple exercises performed in a row as a set for an increasing then decreasing number of repetitions within each set. For example, squats, push-ups, and lunges performed as a set that includes a sequence of 5-10-15-10-5 repetitions.

Exercise Intensity

Exercise intensity is largely determined by a client’s fitness level, goals, and available time. In general, intensity and duration are inversely related. As seen in Table 1, classic information for designing circuit workouts matching client goals to a target energy system is not only useful, but it also provides an extremely wide range of options for appropriate programming. Ultimately, the intensity of each workout will be dictated by a client’s fitness level and capacity on a given day. High intensity for one individual might require sprinting whereas another person may find jogging a sufficient overload; holding a 30-second plank on Monday after a bad night’s sleep might be a near maximal effort whereas it’s an easy task on another day.

Exercise Intensity*

Exercise Selection

Select specific exercises based on your client’s goals. One simple strategy in circuit design is to include primary movement patterns incorporating the core pushing, pulling, and both single- and double-leg movements. Table 2 provides a sample list of exercises using this structure, including progressions and regressions for each. The table also includes exercises that use resistance bands because they are inexpensive and light, making them a great tool for green workouts. In addition, multiplanar locomotion drills and exercises that target the large muscles of the lower body are included for clients seeking aerobic conditioning. Although this movement-based template allows trainers to target major movement patterns, exercise selection should match the needs and desired training outcomes of individual clients. For example, a soon-to-be bride wanting to look awesome in a strapless dress will benefit from additional exercises that target the shoulders and arms; a grandfather hoping to play with his grandchildren needs to be able to move — up, down, and sideways!

Sample Workout Structure With a Bench, Tree, and Band

Available Equipment/Environment

Although your available outdoor space is unique to your location and weather patterns, Table 3 provides a sampling of common outdoor objects and basic exercises, progressions, and regressions for each. Use it as a starting point for developing an outdoor exercise library that can be adapted to your available green space, whether it’s a park, playground, or participant’s backyard, and build it out to match your physical environment. When assessing an outdoor space, other elements to consider include lighting, safety, accessibility, and whether the space is private or public. In addition, weather conditions may not always be conducive to outdoor activity, and there may be some considerations, such as temperature regulation, that are not issues when exercising indoors. Sidebar 1 provides a list of common environmental conditions that may require additional preplanning and communication to make the activity safe and more effective. Clients, particularly those new to outdoor exercise, may not think about some of these issues. Sending a reminder text or having an extra set of gloves on a cold day or sunscreen and water when it’s hot are simple ways to provide extraordinary service that is perceived as added professional value.

If You Had a…
Sidebar 1 Be Prepared For your Climate


To provide examples of how to use outdoor space, we assessed our own outdoor campus space. Considerations included looking for accessible areas that are open to the public, yet private enough for someone to feel comfortable while exercising. Settings ideally would have objects commonly found in many outdoor areas, such as benches, stairs, and trees.

Clark Field

Used for lacrosse games and intramurals, this centrally located field is surrounded by a quarter-mile track. One end of the field includes a set of playground-type equipment with vertical and horizontal bars of varying heights, benches, monkey bars, an array of concrete steps, trees, and a ramp/incline adjacent to a set of wide stairs.

LBJ School

On the east side of campus, this is a low-traffic area that includes a large fountain, a grassy flat area with an adjacent hill, trees, benches, circular tables, and long graded steps alongside a small ramp.

Sidebars 2 and 3 give examples of how we used these two green spaces to program our own outdoor workouts using the principles outlined previously. These examples also can be adapted for those who want to be physically active on their own in a more limited amount of time, such as a lunch break. Simply adjust the times to include the walk to and from a green space and perform a few selected exercises that match what is available. When helping someone commit to being active outdoors, be sure to think through practical issues, such as whether he or she will need to change clothing or shoes or shower before returning to work. See Figures 1–4 for photos of specific exercises; video clips of all exercises are available at http://bit.ly/1M8XcvQ.

Figure 1:
Ramp push-up (L to R): incline on knees (regression), side facing (base), decline (progression).
Figure 2:
Lat pulldown (L to R): split stance (regression), ½ kneel (base), single leg (progression).
Figure 3:
Plank with alternating arm taps (R to L): on knees (regression), on toes (base), single leg (progression).
Figure 4:
Inverted row (R to L): bent knees (regression), straight legs (base), single leg (progression).

Note that all exercises include the ability to progress or regress the movement to either increase or decrease the challenge associated with the activity. Having options designed to match the participants’ capacity has the potential to enhance mastery and perceived success, potentially increasing motivation and commitment.

Sidebar 2 LBJ Total Body Cardio Circuit
Sidebar 3 Clark Field Strength/Power Super Set Circuit


The bottom line is that outdoor exercise/movement has the capacity to increase exercise satisfaction and adherence while improving both physical and psychological health. Using available outdoor spaces for PA enhances participant experience while overcoming common obstacles like space, cost, and equipment. This article presented the current research supporting outdoor movement and outlined an approach for incorporating it into a variety of settings appropriate for a wide range of individuals. Learning to develop effective outdoor programs gives fitness professionals another tool to help others increase PA, ultimately improving mental, emotional, and physical health.

Although the outdoor setting is a great place to conduct group and individual training sessions, what if fitness professionals looked for ways to reach out to the inactive majority as well? What if we worked within our personal spheres of influence to encourage and teach others to use the outdoors for PA? What if we offered to go where the participants work or live and help them create movement strategies to match their physical environment? What if we helped our clients see the many opportunities that are all around them? What if we suggested a walk outside during a lunch break or asked for a commitment to be active with the family twice a week? What if we communicated that all movement has value for both mental and physical health? We might be surprised at the positive outcomes of helping others leverage the fascinating information about PA and the benefits unique to outdoor activities.


This article presents the current research supporting outdoor exercise and helps readers use their environment to structure exercise programs with limited equipment. The template allows trainers to build workouts in multiple outdoor settings that are adaptable to their environment, while being suitable for clients of all levels. This article bridges the gap between the latest research on outdoor exercise and workout programming, meeting the needs of practitioners looking to overcome the obstacles of time, space, and equipment.


1. Barton J, Pretty J. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environ Sci Technol. 2010;44(10):3947–55.
2. DellaVigna S, Malmendier U. Paying not to go to the gym. Am Econ Rev. 2006;96(3):694–719.
3. CDC/NCHS. National Health Interview Survey, 2014. Sample Adult Core Component.
4. Focht BC. Brief walks in outdoor and laboratory environments. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2009;80(3):611–20.
5. Harrison JS. Bodyweight training: a return to basics. Strength Cond J. 2010;32(2):52–5.
6. Hug SM, Hartig T, Hansmann R, Seeland K, Hornung R. Restorative qualities of indoor and outdoor exercise settings as predictors of exercise frequency. Health Place. 2009;15(4):971–80.
7. U.S. Department Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans At-A-Glance: A Fact Sheet for Professionals. 2008.
8. Schasberger MG, Hussa CS, Polgar MF, McMonagle JA, Burke SJ, Gegaris AJ Jr. Promoting and developing a trail network across suburban, rural, and urban communities. Am J Prev Med. 2009;37(6 Suppl 2):S336–44.
9. Thompson Coon J, Boddy K, Stein K, Whear R, Barton J, Depledge MH. Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environ Sci Technol. 2011;45(5):1761–72.

Suggested Readings:

10. ACSM Guidelines for Testing and Exercise Prescription. https://www.acsm.org/public-information/books-multimedia.
    11. ACSM High Intensity Interval Training. https://www.acsm.org/docs/brochures/high-intensity-interval-training.pdf.
      12. Fox EL, Matthews DK. The interval training program. In: Interval Training: Conditioning for Sports and General Fitness. 1974. W.B. Saunder’s Company.

        Outdoor Exercise; Green Exercise; Circuit Training; Bodyweight Training

        © 2017 American College of Sports Medicine.