When my family moved from New York City to suburban New Jersey a year and a half ago, I was a girl with high-heeled boots, a useless MetroCard and a big chip on my shoulder. Sure, our new town was adjacent to a university, and offered many cultural options, cute coffee places and restaurants, but to me it was not home. I knew I would miss the ability to step out my door and just walk to wherever I was going. In Brooklyn, there’s a certain energy in the streets — people are out and about, and you never know who or what you’ll encounter just steps away from your door. Here in Princeton, the sidewalks seemed strangely quiet. Where are all the people? I wondered.
Another frustration was being car-less. In Brooklyn, our little beater was a luxury — a way to escape the city for field trips to Stone Barns, Wave Hill or apple picking. In New Jersey, having two cars is pretty much the standard. Each day when my husband took the car to work, I felt like I was stranded in a lonely episode of the “Jersey Shore.” The cashier at the Rite Aid behind our house was quickly becoming my only connection with humanity. When I was with our then 6-year-old twins, we Ubered to after-school activities and even took cars to the mall when we needed a change of scenery. When my son got used to scoping out the random Toyota Camrys that would shuttle us to the local library, I knew this wasn’t the best way for us to become part of our new community. Something had to change.
Then one morning after the kids went to school and my husband left for work, I stood outside the house for a moment and enjoyed the feeling of the sun beating down on my shoulders on what was an unseasonably warm fall day. Instead of heading to the gym that was within walking distance of our house, I laced up my sneakers, strapped on my fanny pack and took off running down my block.
I’d been running for a few years as part of my regular exercise routine, mostly on a treadmill but sometimes around the loop of Prospect Park. That morning, as I headed in the direction of my son’s school, I wasn’t really sure where I was going, or who or what I’d encounter on my run. After passing some familiar streets, I took a turn on a block I’d never been down, making a mental note of how to get back home. There was something refreshing about traversing this new territory on foot. Inside an anonymous Uber, the air was stale and stifling. Out on the sidewalk, I noticed everything from the crisp leaves that crackled under my foot strike to the sound of trucks and lawn mowers (always with the lawn mowers out here!) and even the clean smell of morning dew as I passed a small tributary. I wanted to bottle that scent and make it into a Suave body wash. It felt really great to be outside.
It occurred to me that I wasn’t alone out here at all — I just hadn’t gotten out into my community.
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As I quickened my pace and began to feel the first beads of sweat, I noticed that there were, in fact, other people outside. I saw senior citizens walking their dogs, FedEx drivers delivering packages, and even other runners who I gave a small smile of solidarity to as we passed one another. It occurred to me that I wasn’t alone out here at all — I just hadn’t gotten out into my community.
I soon found that taking my exercise routine outdoors was a great way to get to know my neighborhood. I marveled as I passed landmarked, historic homes and even a small house with a sign offering avant-garde art classes. It was clear that there was a lot more to my town than I could see out my front window. But more than that, it was putting me in a good mood.
Joanna Paterson, certified trainer and owner of Bodiesynergy Fitness who leads outdoor bootcamp classes, says there are many benefits to exercising outdoors including breathing fresh air, vitamin D exposure which can enhance your mood and the singular focus an outdoor workout can provide that reduces the tendency to overthink.
“Sometimes an outdoor run may be the only moment in your day when you connect with the earth, feel the breeze, feel the outdoor temps and feel great about yourself,” she says.
Because of my runs, I stopped talking and thinking about what I was missing and really started to embrace where I am right now.
“Finding yourself outside in nature is one of the best things you can do to regulate your brain and body, and also find yourself feeling more connected to your surroundings,” says Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a registered psychologist and author of "Discipline Without Damage." “Movement is hugely important to our physical and mental health, allowing for giant squirts of serotonin to flood our brains and have us feeling happier and more settled.”
Dr. Lapointe also told me that getting out in nature would not just help with my own mental health and overall well-being, it would be beneficial to my kids, too. “The research on neighborhoods and healthy child development suggests that feeling connected to and at home in one’s neighborhood leads to better outcomes," she says. "It’s no wonder that an activity such as running in one’s neighborhood can be a brilliant thing when adapting to huge changes.”
After that day, I made it a point to take my workout outside whenever I could, even running in the rain one morning (which, if you’ve done it, you know can be oddly satisfying!). Now when I look out my front window of my house, I see that my community is actually pretty outdoorsy. There are always runners or cyclists passing by, and in fact, there are even a whole network of trails I’ve just begun to explore.
Now, over a year into living here, I have my own car, a little yellow subcompact that I can take to the grocery store or the library or wherever else we need to go. But as freeing as it is to be able to just get up and go, there’s still nothing that beats putting on my sneakers and running and — like moving to a new town — not always knowing where the next step will take me.
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