[Editor’s Note: Former Vancouver reporter Christine McLaren is traveling around the world as the resident blogger for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile think tank investigating solutions to urban problems. In October, 2011, the project wrapped up its three-month run in New York City and in currently in Berlin. This story was originally published on Lab|log at bmwguggenheimlab.org. © 2012 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. The piece and photos are used by permission.]
At first glance, cities are not the most inspiring places to go out and be active. Unless you’re lucky enough to live directly next to a Central Park-sized green space, or you fancy a patient game of dodge-the-pedestrian while you jog along the street, your workout options in the public realm probably seem a little restricted.
Arne Schönewald, a born-and-raised Berliner, preventative and rehabilitative sports scientist, and athletic trainer, wants that to change. He sees the urban environment as the ultimate DIY gym for the everyman, and he wants you to see it that way, too.
“I’ve travelled a lot, and cities always seem like such concrete jungles; you have no horizon, which feels constricting. Sitting here in this café looking at the walls of these buildings, we don’t really feel the urge to be active, to run off into the horizon or to jump into the water. The opportunities are, at first glance, more confined,” says Schönewald. “Berlin does have a lot of options, with parks and lakes and forests, but you have to go a bit out of the city to get there. My idea is to do it differently, to find opportunities for movement in the city center.”
Schönewald has a penchant for combining creativity with athletics. In fact, that is the goal of his new startup project, Arthletics (art + athletics—get it?): to find creative approaches beyond the usual training schedules to get the majority of people back into regular exercise. “A good ninety percent of people don’t exercise regularly. My goal is to get exactly these people, who haven’t been exercising for a long time, and to activate them with creative approaches,” Schönewald says.
During the Lab’s run in Berlin, Schönewald ran a fitness program on Saturdays and Sundays called Weekend Warriors, wherein he and the workshop participants took a few hours in the morning to transform the Lab and the urban environment around it into a hardcore outdoor gym. Doing squats, lunges and such. He also explained what muscles do lunges work. The result was nothing short of seriously badass. On any given weekend, one could find Schönewald barking out orders (though always with a smile) to a dozen or so brave souls smeared in blue Weekend Warpaint as they did pull-ups from tree branches, bike racks, or old bicycle frames suspended from awnings; knee-ups on park benches; coordination drills through old tires; and shadowboxed their way through obstacle courses of rope strung through trees.
Now Schönewald hopes people will take the idea of city-as-gym into their everyday lives. To demonstrate just how easy (and bizarrely fun) it can be to use one’s city in this way, Schönewald took me on a “Weekday Warrior” walk starting from Potsdamer Platz—a conceivable starting place for the average worker—and conducted an ad hoc training session on the way home. There are some rules to the Weekend/Weekday Warrior workout: always try to do a warm-up before you start. A little jog works just fine, or one minute of quick running on the spot, and circle your arms and shoulders to get them moving. Also, don’t worry yourself with any rigorous training plan at first: just do as many of each exercise as possible until you’re tired, while maintaining control at all times, of course, and not pushing yourself too hard. Most of all, Schönewald says, get creative and have fun with it.
The following exercises are only a few examples of hundreds of possibilities.
Fine a wall or fence wide enough for you to stand on safely. Stand with one foot on the structure, and one dangling over the side. Squat down until your knee is at a ninety-degree angle. Sit right back, making sure to keep the knee of your supporting leg as directly over your ankle as possible, until the tip of your foot is okay but no further forward. (If you’re having trouble keeping your knee and ankle in line, sit further back into your squat). Stand back up, and repeat. As you will feel immediately after your first attempt, this one is all about the quads.
This one’s simple: find some stairs and run up them as fast as you can! For an added bonus for the leg muscles in their entirety (calves, quads, glutes, etc.), put the feet together and jump up the stairs. Depending on your fitness and coordination levels you can take the stairs one, two, or three at a time. Both stair-climbing approaches are good for a warm-up, too.
With your hands up on a wall that reaches shoulder height, bend your knees and spring up with your legs, pushing yourself up onto straightened arms. Keep your elbows right next to your body and your toes against the wall as you hold yourself up in this position for one second before letting yourself down slowly. Repeat. This exercise doubles cardio with upper- and lower-body strength training.
Place your right foot on top of a step, with your knee at a ninety-degree angle and the other foot on the ground. Leaning forward and bending both knees, spring up through your legs and switch your feet to land with the left foot on top of the stair and the right on the ground. Repeat, continuing to switch feet back and forth. This is another entire leg-strengthening workout.
Since not everyone is willing to get intimate with the things we find on the ground in our cities, find yourself a bench for some push-ups. Put your hands on the very edge of the seat with your arms straight and stretch your legs out behind you to bring your body into a straight line, from ankle to hips to shoulders (this is done most easily by tipping your pelvis up a little, which helps tighten your abs). Keep your elbows up against your body as you lower yourself down to seat edge, and push yourself back up. Repeat. This can also be done with a wall, fence, bike rack, or anything at a similar height.
Pull-ups: we’ve all done ’em, we all hate ’em, but the truth is, they’re good for us. Find a sturdy something to hang from—a piece of scaffolding, a strong tree branch, or (my personal favorite) the cross bars inside subway cars for people to hold on to—and do a couple good, old-fashioned pull-ups. Hang with your arms long, feet together, and core muscles activated, and pull yourself up to bring the bar to chest height. Repeat. With your hands facing forward you’ll work your abs, chest, and arms. With your hands facing backwards, you’ll work more with the biceps.
Again with the bench. Lay yourself down on your back so that your hips are on the end of the bench with your legs hanging off. Engage your core, pressing your belly button down toward your spine, lift your head and shoulders off the bench, keeping your upper body engaged, and lift your legs up straight, only as high as they can come while keeping your back on the bench. Bring your legs (either together, or switching back and forth one at a time) to a ninety-degree angle, then back down, still straight. Repeat. This works the complete abs and core muscles.
Flip yourself over to lie on your stomach, keeping your hips on the edge of the bench and stretching your arms out in front of you to grip the bench. Squeeze your legs tightly together and bring them up into line with your body, then lift them up. Keep all the muscles engaged as you bring your legs down till your body is in a straight line again (legs can even go a tiny bit lower if you like) and repeat.
This one can be done on any low, long fence, wall, or similar structure. Stand on one side, with your hands on the structure. Keep your arms straight and spring up hard with your legs to jump sideways over the structure to land on the other side. Repeat, moving forward along the structure. This works the legs and upper body while providing cardio training. It’s also a great coordination exercise.
Have other ideas for how to use your city as the ultimate concrete jungle gym? (I’ve been waiting the whole post to use that one.) Post them in the comments section below! Meanwhile, you’ll be able to find me somewhere beneath Berlin, furiously working my biceps one U-Bahn station at a time.
Christine McLaren is a freelance journalist who investigates solutions to urban problems. She is currently traveling as the resident blogger for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile urban think tank investigating urban solutions in nine cities around the world. Her writing and research explores how the shape of our cities impacts the lives and behavior of those living in them and how shifting social, environmental, and economic climates are changing our relationship with the urban fabric. Based in Vancouver, Canada, she has written for publications such as Spacing, Zoomer, BC Business, Unlimited, and Momentum Magazines and reported for numerous print, online, and television news outlets. She was also the lead researcher for award-winning Canadian journalist and New York Lab Team member Charles Montgomery’s upcoming book Happy City, and conducted research for National Geographic Emerging Explorer Alexandra Cousteau‘s upcoming book, This Blue Planet.