Fitness Articles

Walking and Running Tips for City Dwellers

Get a Great Workout in an Urban Landscape

Living in a big city can be exciting. If you reside in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago or San Francisco, you have access to some of the hottest and trendiest health clubs and group exercise classes right in your back yard. And even if you live in an urban part of Dallas, Seattle, Kansas City, Pittsburgh or any other large metropolitan area, you still have a lot of different workout options available. But what if running or walking outdoors is your favorite activity? Well, urban exercisers have to deal with the hustle and bustle of city life, which can put a damper on your exercise experience.

Urban living may give you the freedom to function without a car and easily walk to hip shopping, dining and entertainment destinations, but when you're trying to actually fit in a workout, navigating the city safely and efficiently can be a bit of a challenge. After all, you're up against pollution, traffic, possible crime, uneven sidewalks and other treacherous conditions, not to mention all the traffic and intersections that stop you multiple times mid-run.

Below are six tips for navigating the urban landscape, understanding the possible risks associated with metropolitan running and walking, and using the city to your workout's advantage!

1. Park it. This is an obvious one, but it's too important to ignore. City parks are made for running and walking! They're usually free of traffic and noise, and many parks have better-quality trails and pavement than the streets do. Thanks to fewer cars and taxis and a higher density of trees and plants, these areas are also likely to have less pollution. This is especially important because exercise increases your breathing rate, making air quality that much more important.
Stay Safe Tip: Air quality in cities is usually poorer than more rural areas because of the concentration of traffic, industry and people. In fact, a 2004 review conducted by the University of Brisbane in Australia that examined pollution studies from around the world showed that air with low concentrations of pollutants affected those exercising just as much as air with high concentrations of pollutants impacted non-exercisers. Furthermore, another study, this one published in The New England Journal of Medicine with data taken from the Women's Health Initiative, found that women who lived in areas with high air pollution—even in the form of very small particles called soot—were more likely to die of heart attacks than other women who lived in less pollutant areas. Before you work out, be sure to check the air quality forecast along with the weather. Don't exercise outside on low-quality air days, and avoid high-traffic times like rush hour. In general, air quality is better in colder weather than the hot summer months.

City Fitness Tip: The bigger the park, the better your workouts, as it will give you more places to explore and more foliage to release cleaner air. Check out your local parks and recreation department online. Most cities will list all of their parks, including its amenities (like bathrooms and drinking fountains), hours and features. This allows you to find the best open area for you and your workout, and it might also allow you to discover an entirely new place to walk or run. There may be a hidden gem just a few blocks away that you've never stumbled upon!
2. Run in the place where you live. While parks are great for getting away, sometimes straying from the park can be a good thing when you need variety or a change of pace (pun intended). Jog or power walk through a residential area of town that has an interesting history or one that you find particularly charming or beautiful. Residential areas usually have less traffic and more flora and fauna than commercial areas.
Stay Safe Tip: Be alert to any suspicious activity or unusual situations while you're working out. While crime can and does happen anywhere, some cities are more known for their crime than others (Detroit, Memphis and Miami topped Forbes' recent "America's Most Dangerous Cities" list). But no matter where you live, it's always a good idea to run during daylight hours, carry your ID, and bring a phone and enough money for an emergency—just in case. Always trust your gut. Get more outdoor exercise safety tips.

City Fitness Tip: Pretend that you don't live in your city, and ask yourself where you would go if you were a tourist looking for a workout that could double as sight-seeing. Pick the closest spot for your regular run/walk, and map out a couple other options that are farther away for a future trip. Then grab a friend and see your city in a new active way! Or, if your city doesn't have many safe tourist spots that are suitable for running or walking, turn your trip to the park on its head by running or walking to the park and then using it as a site for strength exercises such as lunges, squats, push-ups and triceps dips on a park bench. Or do some yoga or stretching at the park as a complement to the cardiovascular exercise it took to get there. The possibilities are endless!
3. Play red light, green light. Next time you're stuck at a stoplight, don't just stop or jog in place, impatiently waiting for the light to turn green. Use the break to do some squats or use that street pole for a few one-armed push-ups or that city bench for an assisted plank. If you need a break, enjoy the interruption and do a quick hamstring or shoulder stretch. Instead of fighting against the city's nature, why not embrace it?
Stay Safe Tip: While exercising on pavement or asphalt isn't too dangerous (except for the occasional pothole or bad driver), running on the road or sidewalk can be hard on the joints. In fact, concrete is one of the worst shock-absorbing surfaces. Asphalt absorbs more shock, but it's still not great (grass, wood chips and dirt are best). So when you can do so safely, jog on the asphalt.

City Fitness Tip: Use traffic and stoplights as interactive interval training. After a short walking or jogging warm-up, run hard to a stoplight and see how far you can go without having to take a break because of the traffic. When you hit a yellow light, perform a set of upper-body exercises such as wall pushups on a city building or triceps dips using a park bench. If you get stuck at a red light, hit that lower body with basic squats or lunges. You may get a few curious looks from people, but in a big city, most people have seen stranger things, right?
4. Get on track. Running in a circle may not strike your fancy, but running and walking tracks can be great places for city dwellers to work out in peace. On the track, you can easily track your distance, avoid the traffic and distractions of street running and, if you're lucky, you'll have an easier-on-the-body rubberized surface for your workout. Sounds like heaven, right? Tracks are also perfect for intervals. If you follow the walk-run training method, do fartleks: Run the straights (100 meters) and walk the curves (100 meters), or experiment with other distances marked on the track.
Stay Safe Tip: Running or walking on a track is much easier on your joints than running on the blacktop or concrete, but don't forget about personal safety. Tracks can sometimes be in secluded areas of the city that you're not familiar with. When in doubt, bring a buddy and keep your cell phone close!

City Fitness Tip: To find a running track near you, perform an online search for "running tracks in [enter your city]." If this isn't an easy search (some cities are better about posting their information online than others), call or visit your local running or walking specialty store. Ask them where the best—and safest—running tracks are in town.
5. Get active on your commute. Unless you work from home, you already have to commute to your job. So why not multitask with an active commute that doubles as a workout? Walking lends itself better to commuting since it won't leave you as sweaty and out of breath for your day on the job, but running or biking can also work.
Stay Safe Tip: Never wear headphones while actively commuting to work, and always be alert and aware of traffic and any suspicious behavior. If you're biking, find a bike path/lane and always wear a helmet. If you're walking, choose routes that are well used, well lit, safe and have plenty of public areas in case you think someone may be following you.

City Fitness Tip: Instead of walking in your dress shoes to the subway, throw your nice shoes in bag or backpack and lace up those sneakers! Power walk to the bus stop and get off a few stops early to squeeze in some extra steps.
6. Hit the gym. You may love outdoor running and walking, but when the weather is bad or you work late hours, it's hard to get out there and hit the pavement. A gym membership may be expensive, but it allows you to work out safely and comfortably. Plus, if you join a full-service health club, you'll also have access to group exercise classes, strength training equipment, possibly a pool and more! So don't rule it out: You never know what new activity you might fall in love with.
Stay Safe Tip: The same safety tips apply for going to and coming home from the gym as they do for running and walking outdoors in a big city: Be alert, carry your cell phone but few valuable personal belongings, and stick to areas that are well traveled and safe.

City Fitness Tip: Think the treadmill should be renamed the dreadmill? Try these three tips to refresh any treadmill routine!
Happy and safe running and walking in the city!

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople Coaches Jen Mueller and Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainers.

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Member Comments

  • There is a trail that runs throughout where I live. It is the largest park in town and you can start/ stop wherever you want and I live 1/2 mile from it. I get a great workout riding my bike along it besides there are free bikes along the trail for anyone to use!
  • I am lucky enough to live within a stone's throw of our high school football field and track. The track is rubberized and much easier on the joints.
  • I take my walking back into the subdivisions behind my complex (for exercise walking). I also walk to places a lot using the sidewalk. I hate rural areas and feel much less safe because of the lack of sidewalks and traffic signals (and more people who don't keep their dogs on leashes!!) For jogging I like the parks because the trails are generally asphalt or packed dirt and not as hard as the sidewalks. Living in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area I am thankfully SURROUNDED by parks that are generally full of kids and joggers.

    I do wear earbuds but the nice thing about those is that I can take one out and leave the other one on low. I can actually hear people talking to me that way. I also keep an ear out for cyclists, although even without earbuds I find you don't always hear them (when cycling I do the polite thing and make noise if I see a pedestrian in front of me, bicycles can be ultra quiet).
  • good suggestions. Thanks
  • I liked the idea of looking at the city as if you were a visitor. I'm going to try that once a week.
  • good suggestions. Thanks.
  • My city has a "mayor's mile" skywalk. So that helps with inclement weather, and it's above the street so there's no traffic to slow you down (besides the other walkers). It connects multiple downtown buildings: the convention center, the new arena, a few hotels, a few parking garages, a food court, and a few restaurants. Since there are so many large businesses involved with lots of people around, it seems like a safer option crime-wise as well, though I still keep my eyes peeled for anything suspicious. It isn't open 24-7, but the hours of operation are pretty convenient.

    There is also a greenway to connect the parks along the river, with a pedestrian bridge that is almost completed. It's great to live in a place that uses my tax money for something that benefits us all!
  • walking in the city is easy! lived in Chicago 14 years and walked everywhere. Walking in the country is easy, lots of open space and back roads. Walking in a crimeridden auto town is HARD. Even going to the park you need at least 2 others for safety and don't even attempt to walk the roads. (Think Flint (where I live) or Detroit...)
  • I listen to music sometimes on the treadmill but never when walking. Earphones you can't hear when someone is coming up on you.
  • Oh! And not wearing headphones is essential (thanks to the other commenters). Also, the new hybrid and electric vehicles are very quiet so be sure to look as well as listen!
  • I chaired a teen driving school and this advice is the most pertinent to day-to-day life: always look where you want the car to go. That being said, drivers are often distracted and you can be one of the distractions if you're exercising on the road... That driver looking at you will head that car right on over. I will beg people to stick to the sidewalk unless there is an obstruction that forces you onto the road. Stay safe!!! And yes, I live and work outdoors in an urban environment; there is more nature out there than most people realize!
  • Even in the suburbs you need to be aware of what is happening around you. For years I lived a block away from a street level train station in NJ. 2 deaths happened at the crossing (which included a railroad crossing light, and barrier,,,both wearing earphones). The other issue is, in the suburbs where you have TURN ON RED, you always need to be mindful of a driver who is in a hurry. Some people will make that turn even when they see a CAR, and they are almost blind to a pedestrian.
  • I live in Pittsburgh and have found that since I work pretty much downtown, I run so much more. If you've ever been to Pittsburgh, there are bridges everywhere. My goal this summer is to cross each bridge in the general vicinity of downtown at least once. I am up to 6. After work, I head over to the Y to workout. Instead of jumping on the trolley, I head out for a nice run before step class. I also use red lights to stretch and catch my breath if I need it.

    My city-running mantra is that if I can keep going, I do. For example, I keep running through downtown until I come upon a DO NOT WALK sign. I don't stop until I have to. Also, if my intended course has me stopped but I could take a different route and not stop, I opt for that. That has really helped me to up my mileage slowly. Its like a game. Running through a city is slower so I leave it for the end of my run as a cool down.
  • I use red light to catch my breath - yea so there's that.

    One advantage to running in the city is that there are water fountains around if you know where they are. There are also more and more greenways, you just have to watch out for the bikes.

    I'm surprised there wasn't any talk of headphones in this article as it relates to safety.
  • This article is kind of a no-brainer. However, I did like the suggestion of using red light breaks to do squats or something else instead of jogging in place (which is what I usually do).

About The Author

Jennipher Walters Jennipher Walters
Jenn is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites, and A certified personal trainer, health coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and is the author of The Fit Bottomed Girls Anti-Diet book (Random House, 2014).

See all of Jenn's articles.

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