Why Grown-Ups Should Play Outside

Hey, you guys! Come play outside!

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After Superstorm Sandy hit New York, my gym, the Park Slope Armory YMCA, became a shelter for over 600 people (it's closed until further notice). I was happy that so many folks were getting help, but I was getting cabin fever. I didn't want to gain the so-called "Sandy Five" and was itching to get back to my kettle bell and spin classes. Although I love running outside, achy knees keep my mileage to about 10 a week.

Frances Largeman-Roth
Frances Largeman-Roth
Feeling a bit desperate, I reached out to one of the gym instructors, Joanna Paterson. I knew she had a personal training business as well and led an outdoor boot camp in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. After making sure that Joanna and her daughter had weathered the storm, I asked, "Got any classes this week?" Happily, Joanna had actually increased her offerings due to the Armory situation, and when I showed up for my first Bodiesynergy class, I saw that I was not the only gal who had been jonesing for a workout.

Joanna is not your typical perky fitness instructor. A tough kiwi, she runs a kick-butt class and is not keen on complainers. I think this take-no-prisoners attitude is actually what draws a lot of people to her class—men and women alike. And on this chilly November Monday, there were about ten other women—mostly moms—who decided that Joanna was just the kind of storm relief they needed.

We started with an easy jog to warm up, then headed down to the benches at the ball fields. I figured we might do some triceps, dips, or push ups, but Joanna instructed us to do "jump ups." This plyometric exercise consists of jumping up and landing with both feet on the bench, then jumping down, and repeating until you're wobbly. I hadn't done them for about eight years, and I instantly remembered why. We then trotted over to a hill that's a favorite for sledding in the winter, and that's where the fun really started.

We began with what I call "frog jumps." You squat down, place your hands between your legs, and power yourself forward. This is challenging enough on level ground, but adding the dimension of a substantial incline gave it a more interesting and glute-oriented spin. I squatted down and made my ungraceful way up the hill. That wasn't so bad, but heading back down the hill, I nearly pitched forward like Jack in that unfortunate nursery rhyme. I looked around. Was everyone really doing this with me? Yes—and with gusto.

Next came lunges and jumping jacks (up and down the hill), sprints (ditto), and then cartwheels—again, up and down the hill! Not wanting to risk a concussion, I skipped the cartwheels. Were we crazy? Yes! Was it cold out? Yes! But we were playing, and I think that's the reason we all were enjoying ourselves so much; as responsible adults, we rarely play outside with the abandon of childhood. We take our kids outside to ride scooters and swing and do the monkey bars, but that doesn't constitute play on our parts.

Joanna wrapped up the class after an hour, throwing in a bonus set of push-ups on the way to the park entrance. I jogged home with a tight lower back, burning glutes, and something else—a rekindled love for moving my body. I'm sure I burned at least 500 calories or more during the class, but that wasn't really the point. What will bring me back for more was a sense of accomplishment, camaraderie, and pure joy at what my body can do.

With shorter days, colder weather, and holiday excess upon us, I think we could all use a little boost of motivation. Personally, as another birthday looms ahead, I'm taking pleasure in small physical achievements. Maybe next time, I'll actually attempt the uphill cartwheel.

If you're in Brooklyn, come join us at a Bodiesynergy class! If not, keep these ideas in mind:

1. Next time you're at the playground, instead of checking your email or sending grandma a photo of the kids, attempt a set of pull-ups on the monkey bars. You might only be able to do one repetition, but just attempting to lift your body weight helps make you stronger.

2. If there's a bench at the playground, do a set of triceps, dips, or push ups. Of course, you'll want to ask your spouse or a friend to watch your kids while you're doing your thing.

3. Instead of your usual run with a friend, have her join you for some hops, skips, jumping jacks, and cartwheels. If she needs some coaxing, promise her a hot chocolate afterwards. You might feel silly at first, but I promise it's worth it.

4. The next time there's enough snow (and this winter promises to be a doozy), bundle up, get outside (with or without kids), and PLAY! Build a snowman, make snow angels, go sledding, run around with the dog, and if you have them, strap on your snow shoes!

5. Not sure where to start? Find folks interested in exercising in the great outdoors through a Meetup group. Just type in your zip code and get started!

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom’s Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.