Appearing in New Jersey Life Magazine
Contact with nature benefits both mind and body
BY LESLIE GARISTO PFAFF
Valerie Pawlowski, a personal trainer and founder of New Jersey Adventure Boot Camp in Peapack, reports that her clients work out at a faster pace when they exercise outdoors.
Charles Cook, a New Jersey trail guide and proprietor of Wild Earth Adventures in Garrison, N.Y, says he often fields emails from astonished novice hikers asking him why they feel so good days after a trek.
Bruce Crawford, director of the Rutgers Gardens in New Brunswick, notes that people tend to be more relaxed and social in a garden setting.
As it happens, those are more than random observations. A growing body of research indicates that the simple act of being outside in nature can yield all manner of physical and psychological benefits.
A recent study, for instance, revealed that walkers in a natural setting experienced a dramatic drop in blood pressure. Immersion in nature appears to slow heart rate, speed healing, and decrease the perception of pain. And researchers have found that children who spend time in the great outdoors exhibit improved concentration in the classroom and greater resiliency against stress. The most potent natural healer, it seems, is nature itself.
“We evolved in a natural setting,” says Cook, author of Awakening to Nature: Renewing Your Life by Connecting to the Natural World,” so it’s not surprising that nature makes us feel better” — a concept scientists call biophilia. It may help to account for the increased benefits people report when they exercise outdoors. Fresh air and sunshine playa part as well: “You’re breathing in good, clean air,” Pawlowski says, “away from the toxins that can leach out of carpeting, furniture, and wall coverings.” And a mere 15 minutes of sun exposure is enough to stimulate our daily requirement of vitamin D, a nutrient that seems to protect against osteoporosis, muscle and joint problems, some forms of cancer, and autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis.
From the Highlands to the shores of Cape May, the Garden State offers bountiful opportunities to work out with Mother Nature. Warming weather and lengthening days mean that it’s easier to get a regular dose of fitness in the great outdoors. Here are some of our favorites places to go green and lean:
New Jersey might be the nation’s most densely populated state, but it still boasts hundreds of miles of hiking trails, offering up spectacular vistas and treks that range from simple and leisurely to out-and-out demanding. With a peak elevation of 1,800 feet, High Point State Park, in the heart of the Kittatinny Ridge, earns its name.
“A growing body of research indicates that the simple act of being outside in nature can yield all manner of physical and psychological benefits.”
The park’s Monument Trail lets you take advantage of breathtaking views. At the monument itself — a granite obelisk that marks the highest spot in the state — you can look west toward Pennsylvania and see nothing but rolling forests; turn toward the east and you’ll see woods, scattered farms, and the Vernon Valley ski area in the distance. Monument Trail is great for a family hike; it takes you through the scenic Cedar Swamp (in warm weather, bring along bug repellant) and then loops back to the monument.
Nestled in the Norvin Green State Forest, the challenging Hewitt-Butler Trail runs between Ringwood and West Milford and leads you past brooks, waterfalls, and lots of gorgeous greenery. It also affords one of the state’s most memorable views: the sparkling expanse of the Wanaque Reservoir in the foreground backed by the glittering spires of the Manhattan skyline.
Cook of Wild Earth Adventures has been offering hikers transcendent experiences in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for nearly three decades. His repertoire of hikes includes some of the region’s most famous treks, including the Appalachian Trail and the trails of the Delaware Water Gap, as well as lesser-traveled gems such as Wawayanda State Park and Hewitt State Forest.
UP A CREEK
With 127 miles of coastline – not to mention wetlands, rivers, and rushing streams galore – New Jersey is a paddler’s paradise. Whether you prefer shooting the rapids or gliding along at an otter’s pace, there are ample opportunities for a watery workout.
Along the winding waterways of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, you can spot sea turtles and migratory birds as you paddle past redlined coves and inlets. Just a poker chip’s toss from Atlantic City, the tidal salt marsh affords a preeminent nature adventure and a great workout for experienced kayakers. New Jersey Kayak, located in the refuge, offers rentals and guided tours.
At Somerset County Park, in the Great Swamp Basin of the Passaic River, the county runs a series of guided canoe and kayak trips, including some designed for families. Choose a peaceful paddle through a flood-plain forest, a relaxed ride down the Delaware and Raritan Canal (culminating in a rose-garden picnic at Colonial Park in Franklin Township), or an evocative trip through the tea-colored streams and cranberry bogs of the Pine Barrens.
Take one of New York/New Jersey Baykeeper’s kayak eco-tours in the Hudson/Raritan estuary and you’ll get a healthy dose of eco-education with your day of fitness. Paddle through creeks, bays, and salt- and freshwater marshes or visit a lily-fringed lake or quiet millpond. Whether you navigate Cheesequake Creek or the Shrewsbury River, you and your family can come away with a greater understanding of the importance of the estuary.
A bike ride through the streets and parks of your hometown can almost certainly yield fresh air, green sights, and a healthy cardio workout. But for a change of pace and scenery, New Jersey boasts some of the coolest excursions on two wheels.
“Duke Farms in Hillsborough offers bicycle tours past 7 miles of lakes, waterfalls, and gasp-inducing landscape vistas.”
Running from Milford down to Trenton and culminating in New Brunswick, the New Jersey section of Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park provides cyclists with tree-shaded stretches, striking vistas of river rapids, and a chance to bike past 19th-century bridges, spillways, and stone culverts. For a soup<.;on of civilization, you can even cross the Delaware and cycle through the shop-lined streets of New Hope. Casual cyclists take note: About half of the 6o-mile trail is covered with crushed gravel; the rest is rough dirt.
“Paddle through creeks, bays, and salt water marshes. Or visit a lily fringed lake or quiet millpond. “
Duke Farms, the sprawling Hillsborough estate founded at the turn of the century by tobacco magnate James Buchanan Duke, comprises a stunning combination of garden and nature settings, and it’s a wonderful spot for a family bike ride. The folks at Duke figured that out and offer twilight and Saturday morning bicycle tours past seven miles of lakes, waterfalls, and gasp-inducing landscape vistas.
Cyclists can take in the salt air and more at the Sandy Hook portion of the Gateway National Recreation Area. On the I,6oo-acre barrier island, holly forest gives way to broad, sandy beaches where shorebirds abound. (You can expect to encounter plenty of walkers and in-line skaters as well, so navigate carefully.)
With the exception of a recently paved five-mile path, trails can be rugged, so consider bringing along a mountain bike or hybrid.
The Somerset Hills may be New Jersey’s heralded horse country, but equestrians, novice and experienced alike, can find opportunities to trot, canter, and gallop across the state. In the heart of the 2,000-acre Watchung Reservation in Union County, 26 miles of gently sloped bridal paths meander through the woods. Owned and operated by the county, Watchung Stable offers horse rentals, riding lessons, and guided trail rides.
At the family-friendly Double D Guest Ranch in Blairstown, you can choose from a variety of trail rides. Immerse yourself in nature along the Paulinskill Valley Trail, where you might meet deer, beavers, minks, muskrats, and dozens of species of birds and wild plants. Or spend an entire day riding through serene woods in nearby Allamuchy Mountain and Swartswood state parks.
AL FRESCO FITNESS
Imagine a gym without walls under a ceiling of stars, and you’ll get a pretty good image of the New Jersey Adventure Boot Camp experience. Fitness is foremost in the four-week program, but nature provides a stunning backdrop. Participants generally meet in parks for an hour a day; from 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., for a rigorous workout encompassing cardio and strength training, plus once-a-week break-of-day hikes.