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Usually my days start by rolling out of bed, putting the coffee on and lacing up my running shoes. I run the same loop around the tiny lake that provides a center point for my rural neighborhood almost every day in the spring, summer and fall. Once the lake freezes, running gets replaced by cross country skiing or snow shoeing or – on bitterly cold or otherwise miserable weather days – yoga by a window. (After all, even for the hardiest of souls, sometimes facing the elements just seems like a foolish idea.) I find that being active outside of four walls is essential to keeping me balanced and feeds my commitment to doing what I can to care for the wildness that’s left in the world. Active time outside to reconnect with the energy of my natural surroundings helps keep me grounded in reality.

The other day it occurred to me that I haven’t been inside a gym since the fall of 2010. Back then I was a member of one of those 24 hour fitness places that have popped up everywhere in America, and I found myself on an elliptical trainer or treadmill 4-5 times per week in a dark little building in my community’s downtown area. Rewind six more years and you would have found me in a gym every day: In college, I studied Health and Wellness, did multiple internships at fitness centers and got certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a personal trainer. My first ‘real’ job out of school was at Life Time Fitness, which is now a giant in the health club industry. My second ‘real’ job was at another fitness center that specialized in supporting people with disabilities. In short, indoor fitness punctuated my professional life. And since I was working at a gym, I exercised at a gym, too. It made sense.

But as I transitioned out of a gym-based personal trainer role and started working from a home office, spending time at a fitness facility started to make less sense. I didn’t wake up one morning and say “today is my last day ever in a gym” – The lack of a gym in my routine just evolved out of what my life was asking for. It was asking for more sustainability, and using electricity to power a treadmill so I could get a workout started to feel inconsistent with what I value. It was asking for more beauty, and though I think beauty can be found anywhere, I was having a hard time noticing it between the weight stacks. It was asking for more light, and the hum of industrial grade fluorescent bulbs wasn’t giving enough. Winters where I live in Minnesota can be really harsh and long, so on one hand, having access to a gym in this part of the world seems essential. But looking through a lens that points out what is best for the earth and what is best for the part of me that craves living in a way that feels organic? A gym just stopped fitting into what mattered.

So, while I still work in the health promotion industry and regularly offer support and guidance to others who find fitness centers to be central to their success, I am more content when I don’t use one myself. Not everyone has regular access to areas that support outdoor exercise, but I am fortunate to live in a place that has abundant trails, safe back roads, lakes and rivers to explore. Everyone has a different physical activity equation that works best for their current life situation. I have seen firsthand how fitness facilities can invite benefits to a huge range of individuals, and truth be told, gyms have benefited me, too. But right now, and in the last four years, what has served my well-being best is finding ways to move surrounded by nothing but earth, sky and fresh air.

What about you? What’s your ideal balance?

Heidi Barr

Heidi Barr

Heidi Barr is the author of 12 Tiny Things: Simple Ways to Live a More Intentional Life (due out in January 2021) as well as four other works of non-fiction. A commitment to cultivating ways of being that are life-giving and sustainable for people, communities and the planet provides the foundation for her work. She lives in Minnesota with her family where they tend a large vegetable garden, explore nature and do their best to live simply. Despite working for an app-based tech start up, she plans to put off getting a smartphone as long as possible. Learn more about her work at