What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
I participated in athletics all throughout high school and I worked out routinely in college. And I hate the gym. The crowds, the onion and old sock smell, the sweat-smeared equipment. No thank you.
That’s not to say I don’t enjoy working out. I get depressed and less energetic if I’m not active at least a few times a week. But I’ve realized that, especially since moving from rural upstate New York to NYC, when I work out it needs to be done outside.
This may offend some gym fanatics, but that’s not my intention. It’s just that, ever since I was 13, I’ve been a runner. I’m not referring to the treadmill, which always made me feel like a hamster on a hamster wheel. Instead, I’m referencing a love I’ve had since my cross-country days – a love for the long strides and burst of breeze that is running outside.
While running, especially on pavement, isn’t the best for my joints, it releases healthy endorphins and reduces my stress level. In a broader sense, surrounding myself with space, tall trees and fellow runners reminds me that the worries colliding in my head are manageable – they aren't nearly as monstrous as I think they are.
Everyday experiences make running outside necessary. On a regular day I: stare at a computer screen too long; receive an elbow to the gut as I squeeze into a subway car; get hassled for change by an old man as he drools at the sight of my boobs; never get as much work done as I originally planned; or pay the astronomical $12 for a much-needed glass of wine (in my hometown, wine is $5 a glass).
As a remedy for such stress, I often step outside for a run. It’s even more exciting to do so on one of the first days of spring when the temperature finally reaches 60 degrees, and the sun – that glorious distributor of vitamin D – is no longer crowded by clouds.
I throw on a pair of running tights, a big t-shirt, lace up my much-abused sneakers, and go out the door. My destination is Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as it’s close by and is my favorite place to run. With a loop of a little over three miles, it’s easy to get some decent mileage. There are wooded areas, a view of Prospect Park Lake and, in warmer weather, live performances.
I start out with a slow gait, letting my muscles warm up and tilting my face to the sky so as to remind myself of what sunshine feels like. Sometimes I listen to music, but during this run I choose the blare of car horns and traffic as my entertainment. Once I reach the park the sounds change – birds twitter, the wind blows and nearby runners give off a rhythmic tattoo as their feet hit pavement. And, when I listen closely, I can hear the slightly scratchy sound of a lone leaf as it blows across my path – a remnant of last fall.
The lake sparkles and geese announce their departure as they take off out of the water. As the tension in my shoulders eases and my hips stretch welcomingly, I’m reminded of how unrestrictive and egalitarian exercising in a park can be. Beyond fellow runners and extreme bikers (with heads down and eyes focused ahead), there are parents with strollers, dog walkers, and a crew of four teenagers strolling down the middle of the path (the guys in low-riding jeans and Jordans, the girls in boots with chunky heels). At one point I run by a woman as she pushes an elderly person, possibly her mother, in a wheelchair.
This scene serves a huge contrast to all of my gym experiences. Beyond providing space for everyone to exercise (how many strollers do you see at the gym?), there is also less opportunity for judgment at a park. People may hate my oversized t-shirt and Pebbles Flintstone hair, but I’m gone before they can send a snarky glance my way. There are also different types of terrain – cement paths, the softness of dirt trails, and resting spots around the lake.
As pretty as it is, there are some drawbacks to running outside: dodging dog and horse poop, inclement weather, and the inability to run at night (I could, but: female + nighttime + random strangers + all alone = bad idea). Prospect Park is plowed during the winter so all throughout those long, cold months I ran outside. The brisk air stung, my lungs and exposed skin burned, and I was dressed like I lived in Antarctica. Though these issues can be avoided at the gym with its 24-hour service and central air, I still prefer a jaunt outside because, afterwards, I’m both calm and energized.
Just as there are many runners out there like me, there is also a swell of people who hate running – inside or outside, it doesn’t matter. A close friend of mine is so averse to running that she’d probably pretend to sprain her ankle in order to avoid it. But I’m actively working to get her outside with me at regular intervals – and we’ve started by walking together.
Exercising outside - in the open air, in the sunshine - is so therapeutic, so helpful in combating stress and depression that if you don’t like to run, then bike. If you don’t like to bike, then walk. If you don’t like to walk, then roller-skate. Go alone, take a friend, or talk on the phone while you power walk – but go.
I promise - you’ll get a tan, forget deadlines, and be able to breathe (somewhat) fresh air.
Side bonus, did I mention it’s free?