Wellness & Fitness

Group fitness thrives outside


Tyre exercises during a training session in Nairobi’s Lang’ata on January 20, 2021. NMG PHOTO

Before coronavirus, a majority of fitness enthusiasts exercised in gyms. Early mornings or late evenings were spent either at the well-designed, cozy city gyms or an occasional Saturday boot-camp outdoors to push the body’s endurance levels.

However, amid the fears of getting the virus in enclosed spaces where people are breathing heavily and sweating torrents, some are no longer renewing their gym memberships.

A growing number of the fitness community is now going outdoors, exercising on pavements or estate playgrounds as instructors lead them through gruelling sets of pull-ups, squats, sit-ups, push-ups and muscle-ups, done on tree branches, using unused tyres or gym equipment, but set up in a field.


Alison Caroline Ng'ethe at Body by Alison in Westlands on January 18, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“We need to do away with this mentality that gym is where you can lose weight or tone muscles. Exercising outside does something to you. You get so tired, yet you push out that next rep. Manoeuvring your body anywhere, be it outside, should be a goal for every human being,” says Matthew Otieno, an engineer who has lost 12 kilos since he moved outdoors.

He says what has worked is the doing of push-ups on pavements, dips on kerbs, pull-ups on tree branches, and lifting of dumbbells or kettle-bells weighing up to 40 kilos or flipping truck tyres weighing upto 80 kilos.

Since March, outdoor gyms have gained popularity, and fitness trainers have hived off spaces in city parks, nature trails, and estates. Most say they have found success outdoors compared to before where they used to earn as gym employees, but for others, the concept of outdoor exercise has failed to pick up.


An outdoor training session in Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

At Nairobi’s Karen, Alison Caroline Ng’ethe, who has been in the fitness industry for 15 years wonders how she used to fit over 15 people in a small indoor gym space. Now, she has moved most of the gym-goers outdoors, to a more airy space.

When she started her fitness studio, Body By Alison Caroline, she decided to set a partly-roofed outdoor space that cost her Sh500,000. Little did she know how important the outdoor spot would be.

“Pre-Covid, we did most of the classes inside and just a few of them outside. Now all of them moved outside,” says the 50-year old lead trainer who offers from circuit training, cardio boxing, weight training, body toning, to spin classes, and yoga.

“I look at the studio today and wonder how we used to fit 15 people in it for a spin class.”

When she reopened the studio in July 2020, it was this outdoor space that endeared her to clients who now sweat it out under the more than 70-year-old Brazilian Silk Floss tree.

“I’ve always loved working out outside,” says Ms Ng’ethe.

“Kenya has beautiful weather and there’s plenty of fresh air, which is good for one’s body and mind,” she adds.

Preparing for a spin class, which involves intense cycling on a stationary bike, I watched as Michael Maina, a trainer wheeled out and sanitised them.

“Once the workout is done, one has to wipe down their sweat before they sanitise again and return them indoors,” he says.


An outdoor training session in Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Despite being outdoors, the classes are pre-booked, with each having a maximum of eight or 12 people. But during the 5am spin class, which is usually held indoors, they have a maximum of six clients. To cater to those who might be uncomfortable sharing space, Ms Ng’ethe and her team offer private classes.

Elisabeth Klem and Lawrence Ndibo are some of her regular clients. Most of their clients are women in their 40s and 50s.

“When Caroline informed us about the new outdoor sessions, I was thrilled and it made perfect sense. The climate is perfect and so far the experience has been incredible,” says Ms Klem. What she loves most about the new routine is being able to see sunrise in the morning, or the moon and stars in the evening, while exercising.

“I wasn’t much of a gym-goer before, preferring swimming instead. Being in nature, however, has been a great motivator. I’m swimming less and I don’t see myself going back inside,” she says.

Lawrence Ndibo has since lost 20 kilos while exercising outdoors.

“The experience is exhilarating, unlike in an indoor gym. As a result, I’ve been consistent in the workouts, and for the first time, my hard work has borne fruits,” he says.

New workplace

A playground in Nairobi’s Lang’ata estate is home to a group of men and women, mostly above 40, who now love exercising outdoors.

Eric Kamande, the founder of Kiki Fitness Bootcamp says this field has been his place of work for many months now.

Every day from 5.30 am to 6.30 pm, he trains people to keep fit through boot camp exercises under the blue sky and the rustling of tree branches.

“We’ve been using this field for a while now,” says the 26-year old trainer.

Having worked in an indoor gym before, he decided to make a field his new training ground after coronavirus led to the closure of gyms.

He started his dream with three people and through referrals, he now has 46 clients, mostly women above 40 years.

“The fresh air and the free movement space are the gems of outdoor training spots. Just being outside, lowers your cholesterol and blood pressure levels and increases your testosterone levels,” says Mr Kamande.

Low investment

As other gym entrepreneurs invest in sanitiser dispensers in almost every spot, temperature checkers and aeration machines, and fancy gym equipment, outdoor gyms have nothing other than different-sized tyres, yoga mats, and step-up boxes.

Before a workout session, Mr Kamande arranges the tyres as he waits for his clients.

He then takes them through different exercises including a warm-up run in the nearby Ngong’ Forest.

Jane Katuga, who part of Kiki’s team, says working out outside has more benefits compared to indoors. A counsellor by profession, Ms Katuga knows how the mind operates, and how being in nature relaxes it.

“Spending time outside is a proven way to reduce stress. It also enhances the uptake of oxygen and Vitamin D, which is necessary for peak physical health. This translates to one being able to achieve their fitness goals,” she says.

The freedom of being outside and interacting at a distance, without masks makes outdoors a better option for many, especially those who feel confined working from home.

“In a normal gym, you’re confined in a space,” she says.

Pointing to the trees, she says. “Look at this view. You cannot enjoy such a magnificent sight in a gym.”

AV Fitness, an indoor gym in Nairobi also had to get outdoor space to cater for those still cautious of rubbing sweat, indoors, with crowds, in a pandemic.

“We spent about Sh2 million setting up this space,” says Felix Akendo, the Manager.

To add more space, the gym also re-purposed a model football field and the boxing ring, where they host those doing kick-boxing and personal training.

“Besides the outdoor space, we also split group classes. Instead of having one class of 30 people, we have two of 15 people to ensure social-distancing measures are adhered to,” Mr Akendo says.

However, not everyone is excited about the outdoors. Peter Ortega, a fitness trainer, expressed disappointment at the slow uptake of his outdoor gym in Nairobi’s Kitengela.

He set up a boot camp with military-style drills, almost similar to an established gym, perfect for strength building, toning the body, and losing weight fast. But few people came consistently with most returning to the indoor gym.

“Maybe with time, this will change,” he says.