Strength is an important component of physical fitness. Our bodies adapt to what we do, so our bodies become stronger if we perform strength exercises. Conversely, if our lifestyles are sedentary, our bodies become weaker. The adage ‘use it or lose it’ very much applies. There is an evolutionary reason for this: our bodies have evolved to be resourceful. Lots of muscle requires lots of calories, so if a person has little need for muscle (because they sit at a desk all day), their body will get rid of it. But if you were a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer with an exceptionally active lifestyle, your body would invest in maintaining muscle because it would be essential to your survival.
Being strong has many benefits in the 21st Century. Most people with sedentary jobs still enjoy being active by, for example, playing sports, gardening or doing DIY. Being strong helps you to do these things without injury. For example, many of us enjoy sorting out our gardens in the spring. If you have been inactive all winter, not only are you going to be less productive, but you might hurt your shoulder by lifting pots or your lower back by shovelling. An individual who has been strength training will be more physically resilient and more capable of maintaining good technique when digging, lifting and carrying.
In addition to the functional consequences of staying strong, strength training develops a more athletic and toned physique. I should manage expectations here; very few people have the genetics, discipline and dedication (and, ahem, ‘pharmaceutical assistance’) to look like a bodybuilder. Regardless, strength training will give you a more muscular build. Strength training also gives a sense of achievement and a burst of feel-good hormones (endorphins).
We all know that it’s pretty easy to train aerobically outside (walk, run or cycle). You can also perform very effective strength training routines in the Great Outdoors. Let’s start with a piece of equipment everyone has; our body. Bodyweight exercises (callisthenics) can be done everywhere and anywhere. You can strengthen your legs with variations of squats, lunges and step-ups (amongst many others). It is also easy to perform core exercises such as sit-ups, dorsal raises and planks (again, there are many more). You can perform variations of push-ups and pull-ups for the upper body. These two exercises are fantastic, but you need to know how to make them easier or harder. For example, a push-up can be progressed to a clap or single-arm push-up. The same exercise can be regressed to a push-up from the knees or on the back of a park bench.
In the last decade, there has been a considerable increase in the number of outdoor, public fitness facilities. They range from old-fashioned ‘trim trails’ to machines that look very similar to what you would find in a commercial gym. I’m a big fan of the former, but unfortunately, the latter range from excellent to awful. In my opinion, mimicking cardio equipment in a park, such as reclined bikes or elliptical trainers, is a bit silly. If you want to raise your heart rate, go for a walk, run or bike ride around the park, don’t be a hamster in a wheel.
Other equipment is great fun for kids, but as an experienced fitness professional, I can confidently say that they are not worth bothering with if you want to use your time effectively. However, the strength training equipment tends to be much better. These machines commonly consist of levers that allow you to lift your body weight when performing various pressing and pulling movements. The limitation is your strength-to-weight ratio. If you are very overweight and very weak, you’re going to have a tough time. If you’re light and strong, exercises will be far too easy. There are ways of working around this, and my recommendation is to train with a friend and have them add (or take away) an appropriate level of resistance to the equipment manually (i.e. by pushing down gently as you are pushing up or assisting if you are struggling). If you’re fortunate, you’ll find hydraulic equipment in a park near you. With these, the resistance can be subtly adjusted with a dial. They are great, and I hope more of them appear in public spaces.
In good weather, many people’s default exercise is running, but don’t forget to perform strength exercises too. I’m sure you’ll be able to find a park near you with good exercise machines, and if you can’t, there are many great bodyweight exercises that you can perform.