Make the most of summer learn how to turn the park into a gym

I AM standing in Green Park, puffing and panting, my lungs burning. My arms hurt. My legs are heavy. A line of schoolchildren walks past. If I were them, I would probably be pointing and laughing, but it appears that they are better brought-up than me. I then run towards a bench and start doing press-ups against it. Why? I’m tempted to give the Everest answer: because it’s there.

The parks are one of the best things about London, and now we are having a decent summer, we ought to be make as much use of them as is humanly possible. That doesn’t just mean for champagne picnics and sunbathing; they can also be a fantastic and free alternative to the gym. Treadmills are all very well in winter, but when the sun is shining, exercising in the park is a joy.

The problem for many of us, though, is that all we think of doing is running. For anything else, we are reliant on all the machines and gadgets that a gym offers. But the good news is that you don’t need them: your local green space has everything that you need to turn it into a gym.

To find out how I asked Matt Roberts, who owns a chain of high-end gyms in the more pleasant parts of London. After meeting in his state-of-the-art Mayfair branch, we headed off to Green Park for him to put me through my paces.

“The key is to have a range of exercises that you can choose from,” he says. “There are a lot of people who do outdoor training classes these days. They tend to work you to death, which some people like. It can be a good idea to go to a session to get some ideas.”

Variety is the key, he says. Most people always do the same exercises and the body gets used to the routine. If this is the case in the gym, with its machines and mats, then it’s even more so in the park. But really, anything you can do in the gym is transferable to the great outdoors.

For strength work, you might think that the absence of machines or free weights might hinder you, but that’s not really the case. Rather than lumps of metal, you have to use the weight of your own body, but that has the benefit, says Roberts, that it makes it harder to injure yourself. Rather than doing short sets of heavy weighs, you can simply do more repetitions. Press-ups can be done using a bench, either with your hands on the bench, or with your feet up on it to increase the amount of weight that you are lifting, and to concentrate on the upper pectorals (see diagramme C below). Dips, for the triceps, can be done on the edge of a bench with your feet extended.

Chin-ups can be a little trickier. You can either find a tree with a convenient branch and do them hanging from that, or alternatively do incline pull-ups using a railing, (see diagramme A). All sorts of exercises can be improvised with the bits of metal in parks. “Children’s play-grounds are great, there are lots of bars at all sorts of heights,” Roberts says.

You can use benches to do step-ups and side lunges, and of course your normal, common-or-garden lunges are more fun (and just as painful) when you do them across the grass, if you don’t mind looking a bit of a berk. Crunches and planks for the abs are directly transferable, as are side planks (diagramme B) for the obliques.

For cardio work, it is even better than a gym. Of course, you can run around the park, up hills and steps. Roberts has me doing shuttle-runs between trees (“Trees are good, they give you are marker and there are a lot of them about”). I sprint from a spot to one tree 20 yards away, jog back to my starting point, sprint 40 yards, jog back, sprint 60 yards, then almost collapse. But for somebody who works in an air-conditioned office, getting some fresh air into the lungs is a joy.

Something that is vital, but often forgotten in an exercise regime is stretching. Roberts winces at the state of my hamstrings – I have the “classic desk-worker’s problem” that I sit with my legs folded, which over time shortens the hamstrings. He says that I ought to finish every work-out with a series of stretches – benches are good for stretching out the legs and you can twist your spine by lying on the ground with your legs facing one side and your arms and head the other. This is far more pleasant lying on the grass than on a hard floor with big men grunting all over the place. Well, for me anyway.

Fresh air, a chance to get away from it all and a knackering work-out all for free. The park is the way forward. Plus, as Roberts says, “it’s good for your dose of vitamin D.” A bargain at twice the price.

Varying your routine is the key to staying fit. When there is no equipment about, that can be even harder. Do some research or try an exercise class in your local park and make a list of the exercises. Each time you go you, mix it up.

Benches are suprisingly useful for all sorts of step-ups and press-ups, as well as dips.

Do your research. Have a look about the park, and especially if there is a playground, for things you can turn into equipment. Trees, climbing frames etc can be used for dips, chin-ups and other exercises. Be creative.

Use trees to mark out shuttle-run courses. They are often planted at regular intervals, so are handy for sprints.

Run up hills, then walk down and repeat for a tough cardio and fat-burning workout. And who needs a step-machine when you have real steps?