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Why we all need to take a walk - or run - on the wild side

August 21st 2014 / Susannah Taylor

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When it comes to health and wellness, whitewashed spa rooms and gym treadmills don’t cut it for Susannah Taylor. She investigates the rise of wild wellbeing

What makes you feel good? A massage? Is getting naked in front of a stranger, lying on a very uncomfortable bed with your face rammed down a hole whilst having your buttocks pummeled really your idea of fun? Or for those of you with a gym membership - how inspired do you feel running on a treadmill for an hour watching Emmerdale? I would hazard a guess that your answer could be “Not very.’

This week as I ran on my gym treadmill, staring at a poster of a greased up muscle man in a tight vest holding some large weights (it was raining outside), I questioned whether traditional companies who are supposed to promote ‘health’ have got it all wrong. It’s outdated to think that being healthy is all about how you look. I don’t spend hours a week exercising (normally outside) because I want to be thinner – I do it because it makes me feel amazing and it helps me de-stress and cope with my mental life (the firmer thighs and tighter stomach are an added bonus). There is not much in my gym to make me feel exhilarated or good about myself: the spin class has the same playlist it did six months ago; they serve stale ham sandwiches and I can make a better coffee in my kitchen at home. No wonder there is a reported 60% drop out rate a year after joining a gym.

So what makes us really feel good? Obviously I can’t speak for everyone but for me it’s about spending time with friends and family, being in contact with nature, laughing, singing to amazing music, running at dawn as the sun comes up, feeling strong in my body, getting out of my comfort zone, dancing (and anything that gets my blood racing for that matter), and eating incredible nutritious food. Thankfully, for all the stale gyms out there with blue office carpet, yellow strip lighting and cheese and pickle baguettes, there is a new wave of other health companies that don’t see looking good and feeling good as mutually exclusive.

Take Psycle, the recently opened spin class in London that’s inspired by the phenomenon that is Soul Cycle in the States. The idea of this adrenalin pumping class is that it not only tones your thighs but blows your mind too. The sound system is so good it belongs in Ibiza, and your average protein-munching, heart-monitoring PT has been replaced by actors, actresses and backing singers who often share a stage with Rihanna.

At its launch, Tim Weeks, the personal trainer behind Psycle explained to me that it's important people forget themselves for an hour and that exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. “We want people to leave on cloud nine," he said. Other brands meanwhile are recognising that being pushed well out of your comfort zone is key to the ultimate endorphin buzz. This will explain the boom in Hot Yoga classes springing up all over the world as well as classes such as naked yoga (big in the States) which has just made it over to the UK. It’s a case of people literally baring their bodies as well as their souls in the name of release.

For me, outdoor exercise is key – I wouldn’t have stuck with exercise over the last few years if it hadn’t been for Steve Mellor at Freedom2Train whose sessions are based outside. There is literally no comparison to a session outdoors in nature, compared to the dreariness of a gym. In a world where we permanently have our heads in our computers and iPhones, it’s a welcome reconnection to the real world.

I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so – according to the National Cycling Charity, cycling has increased 20% in the last 15 years in the UK and triathlons have become the UK’s fastest growing participation sport, at a sprint of 10% a year. Meanwhile endurance events such as Tough Mudder, a whacky outdoor assault course where you run through liquid mud, climb over two dozen obstacles and get electrocuted over a course of 10 miles has grown from a $2million company in 2010 to a $115 million dollar company last year. Wild swimming (swimming in outdoor lidos, lakes, rivers and the sea) has also become the latest fitness buzz; when I went into my local bookshop recently there was an entire stand dedicated to it.

The ultimate proof that wild wellbeing is on the rise is the appearance of wellness areas and even fitness sessions at festivals. A few weeks ago I went to the Wilderness festival in Oxfordshire, an incredible weekend of revelry, amazing food and, yes, wellness. Between the Hix tent, the talk from Angela Hartnett, the feel good music and the wild valley disco, you could also book in at an area called The Sanctuary which was solely dedicated to wellness. It wasn’t so much about you leaving a treatment with great skin but more but about leaving the Sancturary with a skip in your step. You could book in for a REN massage in a yurt, the sounds of the mainstage replacing the usual whales that go with spa treatments, book in for sunrise meditation at 7am or surrender yourself to many teams of highly qualified yoga teachers, massage therapists and healers on hand. If you hadn’t drunk too many cocktails the night before, you could even go on wild runs at dawn or do as I did, and have a trapeze session 60 feet in the air.

I don’t believe that good health should be about restriction, starvation or press-ups in a gym, and it’s outdated to think wellbeing is just for hippies or that healthy food has to be tasteless and bland. Times are changing rapidly; the big gyms and spas need to walk on the wild side a bit more, or fear being left behind.

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