4 Ways to Rescue Your Cardio From Boredom

Mountain biking
Predrag Vuckovic/Getty Images / Getty Images

Maybe you’ve already escaped the gym for an occasional walk around the neighborhood, a run or bike ride on the streets, or a swim in the pool. But you can get even further away from the gym—in mind, body and spirit—by spending some serious cardio time where the air is pure and unfiltered. More important, you’ll blaze more calories, improve your overall strength and balance, and hang on to your sanity.

“The time goes by faster in a natural setting because your senses are bombarded by so much stimulation,” says Denver-based Charlie Hugo, personal trainer at the Athletic Club at Denver Place.

Hugo knows a thing or two about the fitness perks of exercising outdoors, having completed two 100-mile mountain-bike races and countless trail runs in the Rockies while training for Ironman-distance triathlons. “One major benefit,” he adds, “is that you burn more calories because of the increased muscle recruitment demanded by the varied terrain.”

We’re not advocating a total cardio shakeup. We’re suggesting only that you change venues, not activities:

– If you walk or run the treadmill, you can take a break from the machine and hike or run trails.
– If you climb simulated hills on a stationary bike, you can wheeze up real ones on a mountain bike.
– If you’re a lap swimmer, you can stop counting and start stroking along the shoreline.

In each case, you’ll enjoy sunshine, fresh air, and vistas far more interesting than the talking heads on CNN.

Mountain biking

Why outside? “The uphills and downhills of mountain biking—and the wind gusts that come at you from different directions—combine to enhance calorie burn, core strengthening and balance,” says personal trainer Charlie Hugo. “Just think of all the muscles you use, for example, to shift your weight around a hairpin turn.” Wouldn’t you rather roll down a shady trail than pedal in place in a gym?

Muscles worked: Major: Hams, quads, calves, glutes, hip flexors. Minor: Abs, chest, delts, trapezius.

Calories burned: 410-550 per hour

Eqipment & apparel: Durable, off-road-ready mountain bikes with front suspension (to absorb shock) start at $300. A helmet, mountain-bike shoes, padded bike shorts and bike gloves total another $150 to $200. Take water, sunscreen, sunglasses, a trail map and a cell phone.

Best places: Many county, regional and state parks are laced with dirt roads and trails; call the park to request a trail map and ask if all trails are open to bikes. At vacation areas, rent a mountain bike and ask the shop proprietor where to ride. Or visit www.trails.com.

Practical tip: At home, practice riding around obstacles and over curbs so you’ll be ready for tight turns and big rocks on the trail.

Just for kicks: Try a different trail route each time to keep your rides fresh and adventurous.


Why outside? Unlike treadmill walks, trail hikes feature ever-changing terrain and surfaces. The result is improved balance and greater fat burning than you’ll get treadmill trudging. The scenery is a bonus.

Muscles worked: Major: Hams, quads, calves, glutes, hip flexors. Minor: Abs, chest, delts, trapezius.

Calories burned: 480-640 (2mph)

Eqipment & apparel: You’ll need running shoes or hiking boots, water, sunscreen and a trail map. More good ideas: a day pack, snacks, hat, sunglasses, camera, cell phone, mosquito repellent, poncho.

Best places: The best trails offer variety in terrain, footing, flora, and fauna. You can probably find some fine day-hike paths in county, regional or state parks within an hour’s drive of your home. Locally or in advance of a summer trip, contact visitor’s bureaus or parks, or log on to www.trails.com.

Practical tip: To add chest and triceps work, hike with a pair of walking sticks (or a sturdy branch) and use them like ski poles. To add low-back work, even on short hikes, wear a packed backpack.

Trail running

Why outside? The benefits of trail running, compared to treadmill or street running, include enhanced balance, coordination and core strength; increased fat and calorie burn; and an end to boredom.

Muscles worked: Major: Hams, quads, calves, glutes, hip flexors. Minor: Abs, low back.

Calories burned: 650-870 at 6 mph (10-minute-mile pace)

Eqipment & apparel: Wear a trail-running shoe, or any running shoe with high-traction soles. Apply sunscreen, wear sunglasses and carry water. Consider taking a cell phone if you’ll be in an unfamiliar or remote area, and pop an energy bar and trail map into a fanny pack.

Best places: The objective is a shaded, single-track trail—not too hilly or you’ll wear out too soon. To find one, ask local runners or running-shop employees, or check www.trails.com, or the U.S. Trail Running Conference.

Practical tip: Pump up the effort of your trail run with “speed play.” On smooth stretches of trail, pick a tree and accelerate until you get there. Jog a bit, then do it again. Even a few short spurts will increase calorie burn.

Just for kicks: Try to finish your run near a body of water. Afterward, dive in or immerse yourself groin-deep for a few minutes. It’s invigorating, and like icing, it has an anti-inflammatory effect that dispels soreness.

Open-water swimming

Why outside? Tired of sharing a narrow lane for endless laps? Sick of chlorine? End these annoyances by heading for open water. Lake and ocean swimming demand a higher, more vigorous stroke than pool swimming and engage more muscles to stabilize your stroke against buffeting waves.

Muscles worked: Triceps, lats, delts, trapezius.

Calories burned: 500-690

Eqipment & apparel: A swimsuit, a brightly colored swim cap and sunscreen are all you need. Goggles will help you see where you’re going.

Best places: The best swimming venue is a small lake. The hazards of ocean swimming—currents, rip tides, even sharks—make the sea a higher-risk option. If possible, swim where lifeguards are present, and ask them about conditions before jumping in.

Practical tip: Periodically swim with your head up, looking forward, for up to 20 strokes. Called the “lifeguard swim,” this will strengthen your trapezius, keep you on course, and ensure you won’t collide with a sailboat.

Just for kicks: If possible, swim with a friend—it’s safer and more fun. If you must go it alone, swim parallel and close to the shore.

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