I’ve never been the sort of guy that likes the gym—in fact, I’ve always found the whole experience daunting. First off, I’m not a buff dude. I’m the not-conventionally-attractive guy sweating it out on the treadmill next to the super-fit 6’2″ bro with washboard abs. When I do actually muster up the courage to get to the gym, I find myself surrounded by a bunch of fancy equipment that I don’t really know how to use…that I simply end up forcing myself to stay on just to hit a number of reps.
In short, motivating myself to work out has been nothing short of challenging. After years of trying to force myself to get in a workout here and there, though, I found the illustrious secret to staying fit: the great outdoors.
Last summer, on a swelteringly hot day that no one should have willfully been outside, a friend of mine invited me to go rock scrambling, which is essentially the act of using your hands and legs to move up steep, mountainous terrain.
I’d hiked before, but never on high-incline rocks at a pretty fast clip. I remember thinking, This is essentially walking—right? I was wrong.
Rock scrambling was actually very tricky—nothing the average person can’t do with some trustworthy sneakers and some planning, but tricky nonetheless.
There were plenty of moments during that first experience where I had to tap into serious wells of strength—both physically and mentally—to assess and climb up those steep boulders. I’d had no experience doing any of it, but I had to make smart decisions and use muscles that, frankly, hadn’t seen the light of day.
I enjoyed scrambling up these rocks alongside a bunch of strangers also trying to make it to the top, and learned that I’m actually a fairly competitive person. The gym might not bring it out of me, but nature sure does.
There was one situation in which I’d climbed up a steep set of rocks and after getting stuck, needed to go back down and recalibrate my strategy. I ended up getting nervous because I didn’t have the strength to make the climb, so I slid down only to see my friend successfully complete what I’d tried to do. This only drove my spirit further, encouraging me to take a deep breath and give it another try. Unlike being at a fancy gym surrounded by four halogen-lit walls, I felt like I had achieved something real. I had pushed myself in a functional way that could serve me in my everyday life (and in future rock scrambles).
The gym no doubt has its many benefits, but when you’re in nature, you’re faced with two simple (but very different) options: take the easy route or go the hard way. There’s something really fulfilling about pushing yourself in a semi-treacherous environment. In nature, you need to use your intuition; there’s no clear “time out” or end-of-workout (except getting out of there before nightfall)—which is totally different from waiting to hit 10 reps on a machine before you can quit.
As I regularly hiked and scrambled, I was surprised at how quickly my stamina and endurance developed. Each time I got stronger, gaining quicker physical reflexes. It felt like an accidental workout, all while being surrounded by beautiful scenery. (I live in New York City, so being able to exercise outside, smelling the air and seeing greenery, was a huge plus.)
You won’t get rock hard abs by hiking once a week, but it will develop your strength and stamina and make you feel more functionally apt. It also helps keep off those extra pounds (I’ve been known to indulge in fast food…more often than I should admit). Hiking also developed my legs, arms, and back muscles.
Another benefit: the hiking community. While some people around you may scramble like pros, nature is the great equalizer—you’re all out there doing the same thing, trying, moving forward. Strategizing routes with friendly strangers, helping an older person up a rock face, or having a quick chat with someone while taking a water break is encouraging—it’s this camaraderie that keeps me coming back to the mountains.
The most worthy benefit, though, may come from nature’s generous mental health boost. If you live in a city, or have a sedentary 9-5 job, setting some time away to get into nature is a great way to feel better about life in general. It definitely helps me disconnect from the grind (I work as a real estate agent, so I’m surrounded by architecture and paperwork every day). After a few weeks without hiking, I start to crave nature and the feeling of accomplishment that follows a good scramble.
During any hike, I collect victories along the way: I can choose the harder path, or climb faster than I did last time. These small but meaningful achievements are quite profound—and, personally, way more fun than figuring out my one-rep max.