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There's a natural harmony in doing a standing tree pose under a grove of California oaks, but you don't have to be a yogi to appreciate outdoor exercise.

Sonoma County has always had its year-round nature-loving cyclists, runners, hikers and surfers, but what's new under the sun, and morning fog, is organized outdoor group exercise.

Getting people to exercise alfresco is the intent of the Naturally Fit program, a collaboration of the Sonoma County Regional Parks and Sonoma County YMCA that this summer offered sports conditioning, resistance training, triathlon training for beginners, a bikini boot camp for new mothers and yoga classes at Spring Lake Park.

Anyone who prefers a dirt trail to a treadmill already recognizes the perks of getting an added endorphin rush from Mother Nature. Now studies confirm there are definite mental and physical benefits, including increased energy and decreased depression, to getting out of a stuffy, noisy gym.

Becky Ennis, group exercise coordinator for the YMCA, said the year-old program is a natural pairing with parks.

"Parks has the space and the Y has the programs," she said.

Plans are to expand the outdoor exercise schedule, which now ends in September, into the fall and winter months and into parks throughout the county. Ennis likes the idea of a family Zumba class in picnic areas.

As for weather issues, she said, "We've got parks with covered areas. Once folks get into the mode of exercising outdoors, they're usually not deterred by it being a little sloppy outside."

Instructor Nicole Martinovich, who teaches yoga at Jackrabbit Meadows at Spring Lake, said, "It's so much more expansive than four walls in a classroom. You can look up at the sky. The vibe is very different."

There are some constraints to practicing yoga outside. Holding a pose on hard, uneven ground is different than standing on a foam mat inside a studio. But that adds to the challenge, said Martinovich.

"You work different muscles. You stay very aware of your balance."

And nature often provides a side show. One early evening as students went into a final twist, she said, "we had the moon coming up on our face and the sun going down through the trees on our back. I could never have planned that."

Studies show that you stride differently when running outdoors rather than on a treadmill. You may also get more of a workout by dealing with wind, temperature and changes in terrain.

Older adults who exercise outside stay with their workout regimen longer than when in a gym, according to a study reported by the National Institutes of Health.

Other studies suggest that outdoor exercise lowers your cortisol, the stress hormone. Plus there's exposure to sunlight, which boosts some people's moods.

And maybe a sunrise, too.

"We get to watch the sun come up almost every day," said Amie Breeze, who teaches Sebastopol Adventure Boot Camp on the grounds of Analy High School. They start at 5:15 a.m., and Breeze repeats her class at 9 a.m. at Ives Park in Sebastopol.

"We spend so much of our lives indoors. Outdoors is an amazing place to train," said Breeze, who warms up her groups of 20 or more with running or walking laps, followed by cardio exercise and weight work.

Need help?

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County warmline: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

Students work out year-round and on stormy days adjourn to a Sebastopol church room.

Mary Clemens, manager of recreation, health and education programs for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said formal exercise programming in parks is a national trend. She thinks there's enough local enthusiasm to develop programs "calibrated to the season."

"Taking long walks in the winter in Sonoma County is phenomenal," Clemens said.

"All the mosses and lichens. Seeing your breath. Crunching over a little bit of ice on the creeks."

Even reluctant couch potatoes may be more apt to try exercise when it's outside rather than indoors, she said. "In a park it feels more like you're playing."

Christina Lindh of Santa Rosa can attest.

"Maybe you don't want to get out of bed and work out," she said. "But you have people waiting for you and you get there and the mist is coming up off the lake. Or maybe there's a hot air balloon."

Lindh was part of a triathlon training group this summer and said some nights they finished at the Lakeside Grill at Spring Lake "for oysters and a glass of white wine. Very Sonoma County."

Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.

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