Complex movement is not just a physical exercise, but a cognitive one – as we run, jump, vault and climb through an unprepared environment we are also taxing our brain’s motor control, memory, spatial awareness and executive functioning.
This is why a combination of simultaneous physical and mental work improves neural responses and brain health, and also actually makes difficult physical work seem easier. Training outdoors floods your senses with a mass of information and stimuli you just don’t receive in a controlled indoor setting: light patterns, temperature shifts, wind, far more colours (especially if you have nature within sight), surface variations, random noises… the list goes on. And it’s all GOOD.
Some might see these things as distractions, making a workout harder (though of course that’s also a good thing) and less pleasurable: but the truth is that these stimuli are, of course, what our brains have evolved to manage while engaging in physical activity over hundreds of thousands of years. It’s not a problem, really.
Simply put, moving our training into predictable, ordered gyms with uniform tools and terrain meant we lost a critical brain stimulus. And that has huge, non-obvious knock-on effects on our overall health, fitness and well-being.
But the good news is that you can easily restore it by taking your training back into the world. Parkour does this incredibly well, providing a way to practice movement even in the ‘unnatural’ built environment of the city. The multiple micro-adaptations required to carry out movement activities in such surroundings keep the brain engaged throughout, strengthening the body-mind union and increasing the benefits of the training significantly.
I believe at least 50% of your practice should be done outside, in unprepared and unmanaged environments. Learn to manage the rough surfaces; embrace the cold or the sunshine; adapt to the wet; expand your awareness of distractions and practice the focus required to zone them out; in short, solve the problems!