Conquer Your Fitness Goals in the Great Outdoors

The desire to be more physically fit often tops the list of resolutions at the start of a new year.

This year, making a commitment to increase physical activity may be more important than ever. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults who are physically active are healthier, feel better and are less likely to develop many chronic diseases than are adults who are inactive. Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity has also shown to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression and improve sleep and quality of life.

The past year was tough. While some found themselves with added free time to up their fitness game, others found solace in comfort food and gained what has been dubbed the “COVID 19.” No matter how you coped with the past year, 2021 brings with it renewed hope. What better way to kick off a much-anticipated year than by making a commitment to your own well-being?

For those who are feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of starting a fitness regimen, take heart. “You are not alone in your fitness slump and you should not be embarrassed,” stated Elaine Ragan, founder of Insane Fit Girls, a Westchase-based fitness group that welcomes women of all ages and fitness levels. “I have a saying that I share with the Girls all the time: ‘Love the Season you are in.’ Life is complicated and 2020 has added an extra level to that complication. Be patient with yourself and show yourself grace and try not to be scared to try something new. Decide what is reasonable, realistic and enjoyable, and then give it a try.”

Even the CDC acknowledges the need for baby steps. Topping the list of their physical activity guidelines for adults is a simple statement: “Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day.” In other words, some activity is better than none. A recent study showed that even moderate exercise for 11 minutes a day offered a big reduction in chances of early death.

For substantial health benefits, the CDC recommends a minimum of 150 Minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. They also recommend adults should take part in muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups two or more days per week. Going beyond these minimum recommendations can result in added health benefits.

The key is building up to the recommended fitness levels at a pace that makes them sustainable. Westchase resident Monika Cassidy, a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, breaks down her advice to those just getting started into three steps:

1. Find something that you already enjoy doing and make it a goal to get better at it. For example, if you enjoy running, perhaps train to increase the distance or make it a goal to get faster for your next 5K. Whatever it is, have a plan, train smartly and stay consistent. As a coach, I always tell all my athletes that consistency is very important to their success.
2. Find something that you have always wanted to do but never had the courage or opportunity to try. A good example is swimming. It is never too late to learn how to swim. Swimming has so many health benefits and we are able to pursue it all year round since our pools are heated.
3. Set a challenge. It can be simple, such as “walk for 60 minutes every day for a month” or “do 100 squats every day for a month,” etc. As with any workout or training program, one needs to be smart about recovery (stretching is important) and good form, of course.

As the pandemic continues to loom, much confusion exists as to how to navigate daily life safely—including the safest way to workout. Fortunately, we live in an area where it is possible to exercise outdoors year-round while maintaining a safe social distance from others. Ahead, we offer some suggestions on ways to get fit outdoors. It is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all option. The key is finding the workout that works for you. “The more you enjoy the workouts, the more inclined you are to stick with it,” Cassidy said.

Combining a number of the options below will help maximize results. “People should mix up their exercise routines to prevent boredom from doing the same workout after workout and also to avoid reaching a plateau in workout performance and hindering progress,” Cassidy noted. “Variety is key to keeping the interest and ‘fun quotient’ going and staying consistent.”

Hop on a bike

Cycling is a great way to take a mental break by peddling past constantly changing scenery, while boosting immunity, burning calories and strengthening muscles. Best of all, cycling is low impact, so there is less chance of injury.

Our neighborhoods are full of scenic stretches of bike trails, but sometimes a change of scenery and terrain helps keep fitness goals fresh. From the leisurely Tampa Riverwalk to the rugged mountain bike trails at Alafia River State Park to the 50-mile-long Pinellas Trail, there is a trail for every fitness level in Tampa Bay. Find area route maps, trail access points and trail reviews all in one place at www.traillink.com.

For those who don’t own a bike, several rental options exist across Tampa Bay.

Alafia River State Park rents mountain bikes and helmets for those looking to give their rugged trails a try. City Bike Tampa, on Cass Street in downtown Tampa, offers several models of bikes, and all are perfect for cruising the city streets or the nearby Riverwalk. For a bike ride with beachfront views, OTE bikes in Dunedin offers rentals that are within riding distance to Honeymoon Island.

Take a hike

Hiking is a great way to connect with Mother Nature while getting a good dose of cardio. There is some debate as to what truly constitutes a “hike.” Merriam Webster defines hiking as “a long walk especially for pleasure or exercise.” Avid hikers often insist hiking must involve a change in terrain, and even a change in elevation. It is true that hiking on uneven terrain works the muscles a bit more while promoting balance and stability, and ascending even a small hill will get the heart pumping a bit faster.

While you won’t find too many elevation changes, Tampa Bay has plenty of places to get off the beaten path. Hillsborough County is home to a number of nature preserves where hiking trails often remain in their natural state. You can find a complete list at www.hillsboroughcounty.org. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Pete, Hillsborough River State Park near Zephyrhills and Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs all offer a good mix of terrain, a few elevation changes and some scenic vistas.

If you need a little motivation to get off the couch and onto a trail, sign up for the Hillsborough County Hiking Spree, which runs through March 31. This annual hiking challenge encourages residents to tackle a minimum of eight trails from a list of 20 in order to earn a prize. Learn more at hcflgov.net/hikingspree.

Go for a run

Running is inexpensive, the health benefits are numerous and running is a great way to either kick start your day or leave the worries of the world behind at day’s end.

Running the same route day after day can get monotonous, however. Apps like MapMyRun keep things interesting by putting new routes at your fingertips. Simply type in your zip code and you will have access to a plethora of prerecorded running routes complete with information such as distance covered, total ascent and maximum elevation. You can even see the best run time for that particular route to get those competitive juices flowing. Or you can create your own route.

Joining a run club is another great motivator. The Westchase chapter of the Irish 3.1 Run Club is open to runners of all levels who are looking for a group to help keep those running goals in check. “The camaraderie of the group is a great motivator,” said James Russell, leader of the Westchase chapter. “It’s a great support system—it pushes you to get out there.”

The Irish 3.1 Run Club meets weekly on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at Irish 31 in West Park Village. Members of the group run at their own pace to complete 3.1 miles (hence the club name) or the equivalent of a 5K. After the run, runners can enjoy $5 appetizers and drink specials at Irish 31. Once a month the group hosts a themed run to keep things interesting. Those interested in joining simply need to show up on Wednesday night.

Hit the Water

Stand up paddle boarding (commonly referred to as SUP) is a total body workout that can be done on any of our beautiful bodies of water here in Tampa Bay. It may look like a leisurely activity, but you’ll work your glutes, abs, quads and other stabilizer muscles in order to keep you from getting wet. It may be the arms that pump the paddle, but your back and hips give you the power to go the distance. To maintain balance while paddling, your body engages all your core muscles, while improving balance and posture.

Kayaking is another great whole-body workout that gets you out on our gorgeous waterways. Again, the arms get the brunt of the workout, but your legs apply the needed pressure to keep you balanced on the kayak and rotational movements used to guide the kayak work the obliques.

The Dunedin Causeway is a great place for beginners to either endeavor. The waters between the causeway and Caledasi Island are surrounded by St. Joseph’s Sound, a shallow aquatic paradise that is home to abundant wildlife. These waters are closed to motorized boats, keeping waves at bay. Sail Honeymoon, located on the causeway, rents both kayaks and paddle boards by the hour or the day.

Find a fitness group

Working out with a group is not only a lot more fun than working out alone; it also instills a sense of accountability that helps keep you motivated to show up. “I love group exercise! It is inspiring and motivating to be surrounded by dedicated, like-minded individuals, working toward health and fitness,” Cassidy said. “It bolsters camaraderie and often long-lasting friendships start in group exercises classes.”

“It’s the relationships that help keep us accountable and often the reason you show up even when you don’t want too.” Ragan added.

Outdoor fitness groups were popular in our area long before the pandemic. “I have been offering outdoor fitness classes since the inception of IFG nine years ago,” Ragan said. “It was always my goal to have an outdoor group because it is probably the only time we are outside for ourselves throughout the day under normal circumstances.”

Now those outdoor workouts are proving even more valuable. “So many people are working from home now and not even getting out of their house to go to work, so the change of scenery and interaction has really helped when things get difficult emotionally,” she said.

Insane Fit Girls works out in open spaces that allow members to maintain a minimum six feet of distance at all times and they don’t share exercise equipment. For those who are not ready to venture out, there is a virtual option. “I have loved adding Zoom because it allows me to see people I wouldn’t ordinarily see and I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from those ladies to please keep the option, so as long as there is interest in Zoom, I’m all in.”

Get outside your comfort zone

Experts agree that cross training is a great way to promote overall fitness and help runners avoid injury. Why not go for the ultimate in cross training: the triathlon. “As a triathlete and USA Triathlon Certified Coach, I absolutely encourage everyone to make that leap and try a tri!” Cassidy said. “There are so many benefits of triathlon (an aerobic multisport involving swimming, cycling and running done consecutively), one being is that it trains the body (and mind) for the skills of three sports versus only one.”

Cassidy also pointed out that because the three sports complement each other, training for a triathlon works all of your muscles, while building strength and endurance. “You also get to meet and train with others, so the social aspect is huge. It is a physically and mentally rewarding sport, which I truly love.”

Numerous triathlon training groups that offer the support and motivation to keep up with training exist in Tampa Bay. And with so many cycling and running trails and heated outdoor pools throughout our neighborhoods, it is easy to find a place to get in a daily run, ride and swim.

No matter what outdoor activity or combination of activities you choose, remember the goal is simply to start. It can be as simple as an extra walk with your dog, or as ambitious as setting your sights on your first marathon.

We wish all our readers a safe, healthy and hopeful start to 2021.

By Karen Ring

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