5 Urban Alternatives to the Gym

By: Clint Pumphrey
Parkour anyone?
Carl Schneider/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Shorts? Check. Tank top? You betcha. Shoes? Laced and ready to go. But then you stand up and look out the window of your downtown apartment and wonder: Where can I go to get a little exercise? There aren't any good trails nearby for jogging or biking -- just a jungle of cars, roads and buildings as far as the eye can see.

The obvious solution is to head to a gym, and there are a lot of urbanites who do just that. According to a 2010 survey conducted by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, there are nearly 30,000 health clubs in the United States, accommodating some 58 million patrons [source: IHRSA]. Many of those are located in big cities, like Minneapolis, Minn., which has the most gyms and fitness clubs per capita with 73.8 for every million people [source: Huffington Post].


But if running on treadmills, pumping iron and admiring your chiseled abs in front of a mirror isn't your thing, you'll be glad to know that there are other options. Downtown dwellers have come up with all kinds of ways to get a workout without setting foot in a gym, from traditional sports like basketball and hockey to newer activities like parkour and hashing. So lose the free weights, ditch the elliptical and check out our list of urban alternatives to the gym!

5: Parkour

Here's one way to get in shape: Tick-tack over the railing, gap jump the alley, and kong vault the wall. Confused? Well, don't be. These are moves for an activity called parkour, and the goal is simple, really: to use obstacles and the surrounding environment to move more efficiently from point "a" to point "b," and gain greater mental and physical health in the process.

While parkour has only recently gained popularity, its origins date to the early 20th century. Back then, a French naval officer named George Herbert developed a military training method known as methode naturelle or "the natural method," which involved climbing, running and man-made obstacle courses that simulated the natural environment. The French special forces later adopted the program and called it parcours du combatant, which translates as "course" or "path of the warrior." In the 1990s, Frenchman David Belle created modern parkour by combining elements of his father's military training with his own skills in gymnastics and martial arts. Its popularity increased in recent years thanks to an appearance in the opening chase scene of the 2006 movie "Casino Royale," as well as numerous YouTube videos.


For those city dwellers looking to get some exercise, parkour is a great option. With plentiful benches, stairs, poles, and other features, urban settings are the perfect place for athletes to vault, jump, climb, and roll their way to better fitness. Explore Web sites like American Parkour, Parkour Generations and Urban Freeflow to find clubs and training sessions near you.

4: Hashing

Does beer-drinking count as exercise? Sure it does, as long as you have to work hard to get it!

That's the mindset of the Hash House Harriers, an international running and drinking club with chapters all over the world. Members meet regularly for an activity called hashing, which is basically an adult version of the old children's game, Hare and Hounds. One runner is chosen as the "hare" who is chased down city streets by runners playing the role of the "hounds." Along the way the hare leaves a "scent" (bits of paper or colored flour) for his or her pursuers to follow. The hounds remain in constant contact, using horns or verbal calls like "on-on" to indicate that they're on the right track. Eventually, the hare will lead the hounds to the finish line or "on-in," which, as you may have guessed, is often at a bar or other venue where alcoholic beverages are served. While this sounds more like a party than a workout, participants may run several miles during the course of a hash.


So if you're ready to exercise both your muscles and liver, join a hashing club. With some 2,000 scattered across the globe, you're likely to find one near you; just search Web sites like www.gotothehash.net or www.half-mind.com for links and contact information.

3: Boot Camp

boot camp
Boot camp is a fun way to get some exercise in the city -- and meet people.
Mike Powell/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Everyone is familiar with the stereotype of military boot camp: Day after day, a burly sergeant with a wide brim hat puts new recruits through a series of difficult challenges, yelling at them constantly until they become stronger and more disciplined. Fitness boot camps are similar in that they are mentally and physically challenging, but they usually only last 60 minutes and there's considerably less yelling.

While some boot camps meet in gyms, many take place outdoors, right in downtown plazas and parks. They typically last about four to six weeks and meet three days a week for about an hour. Each day, a trained fitness coach directs a different exercise program that includes some combination of stretching, running, stair climbing, calisthenics, plyometrics, abdominal training and much more. And unlike a gym workout, you don't need a lot of fancy equipment -- just some sports clothes, training shoes and water.


One of the things that people like most about the fitness boot camps is that, like a military boot camp, you don't have to endure the challenge alone. The camaraderie of the experience makes the exercise seem more bearable, and in some cases, fun. Who knows, you might even come out of your fitness boot camp with a new friend as well as a toned body!

2: Pick-up Games

Remember when you played sports on the school playground? Without the benefit of bases or goalposts, you improvised with rocks, trees, backpacks or other objects. Now that you're all grown up, why not organize some pick-up games and do the same thing?

In urban areas, parks are the best place to play sports because they offer large expanses of green grass in an otherwise concrete environment. Find a nice open space in one of these public areas, invite a bunch of friends and pick a sport. A simple set of orange cones can mark goalposts on a soccer field, bases on a baseball diamond, or endzones on a flag football or ultimate Frisbee field. If the park has dedicated facilities for a sport, like basketball, tennis, or volleyball, by all means use those as well. The games don't have to stop in the winter; if you live somewhere cold, locate a nearby park with a skating rink and play some hockey.


The health benefits of playing these sports are tremendous. Take this list, which shows how many calories a 160-pound (73-kilogram) person would burn when playing each sport for an hour [source: Mayo Clinic]:

  • Basketball: 584 calories
  • Flag football: 584 calories
  • Ice Skating: 511 calories
  • Softball or baseball: 365 calories
  • Tennis: 584 calories
  • Volleyball: 292 calories

Clearly, sports are a great workout, but you'll be having so much fun you probably won't even notice.

1: Community Gardening

Believe it or not, gardening is good exercise.
Image Source/Thinkstock

I know, I know. Gardening? That doesn't seem like much of a workout. It turns out, though, that all that kneeling and digging can burn more calories than you might think.

While many urban residents don't have a big yard (or any at all), most cities have community gardens that residents can tend to collectively or divide up and grow their own individual plots. The practice is good for the environment because it reduces the fossil fuels needed to transport food from larger farms, but it's also good for the gardener's health. A 180-pound (81-kilogram) green-thumbed city dweller could burn a surprising number of calories by spending 30 minutes on the following chores [source: Morales]:


  • Watering: 61 calories
  • Planting seedlings: 162 calories
  • Weeding: 182 calories
  • Clearing land: 202 calories
  • Digging, spading, or tilling: 202 calories
  • Gardening with heavy power tools: 243 calories

These activities are only considered moderate exercise, but that doesn't mean you can't get hurt doing them. Use a cushion for your knees and try to keep your back straight when kneeling. Stand up every 10 minutes or so and stretch your legs, and try to vary your activities when you can. If you're doing a strenuous activity like digging, try to break it up with some light planting or weeding.

Finally, it's a good idea combine gardening with aerobic workouts like cycling, jogging or swimming. This type of exercise improves lung function and strengthens the heart, which are two benefits you aren't likely to get from gardening.

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Author's Note: 5 Urban Alternatives to the Gym

I grew up in a small southern town in a modest house with a big yard. I spent evenings and weekends playing in the sandbox, tossing the baseball with my dad, or exploring the small forest adjacent to our property. I didn't realize how lucky I was to have so much space in which to exercise and play. More recently, I lived in a community of about 200,000 people, small by city standards but big enough to limit my exercise opportunities. I didn't want to join a gym, and I was often forced to jog or bike down busy downtown streets for exercise. Now I'm again living in a small town, this time in Utah with a national forest less than a mile away. But I'm not going to take my recreational possibilities for granted this time!

Related Articles

More Great Links

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  • Huffington Post. "The Cities with the Most Gyms and Fitness Centers." June 18, 2012. (Aug. 24, 2012) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/18/cities-gyms-fitness-centers_n_1591614.html#slide=1088456
  • International Health, Racquet, & Sportsclub Association. "U.S. Health Club Membership Exceeds 50 Million, Up 10.8%; Industry Revenue Up 4% as New Members Fuel Growth." April 5, 2011. (Aug. 24, 2012) http://www.ihrsa.org/media-center/2011/4/5/us-health-club-membership-exceeds-50-million-up-108-industry.html
  • Morales, Tatiana. "Gardening as Exercise." CBSnews.com. Feb. 11, 2009. (Aug. 24, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500164_162-515010.html
  • Mayo Clinic staff. "Exercise for Weight Loss: Calories Burned in 1 Hour." Dec. 1, 2011. (Aug. 24, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise/SM00109
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