One writer shares how cancelling her gym membership and picking up cycling outdoors led to weight loss, muscle definition, and a new lease on life

By Molly Ritterbeck
May 12, 2015
Molly Ritterbeck

Something unexpected recently happened to me: I broke up with my gym. We had been together for years, but working out there just wasn't working out anymore. It was a clean break. I expected to feel a little lost afterwards, maybe a little down and out of shape, but actually, I've never felt better. In the months that followed, I slimmed down, toned up, and boosted my endurance like never before. And here's the kicker: It was pretty easy. I just spent more time outside on my bike. (Taking your fitness plan outdoors is easier (and way more fun!) than you think: Here, How to Burn More Calories Outside the Gym.)

My relationship with the gym got serious after college. I played sports growing up and always loved being active, but my early twenties were spent trying countless different workouts in search of the one. I ran, kickboxed, pulsed, spun, and warrior posed in gyms all over New York City-you name it, I tried it. I even threw myself in a pool and trained for a few triathlons just to beat boredom. But as happens to most people, I got stuck in a rut. Nothing I tried ever stuck. It all felt like a chore. I'd do it for a little, then quickly grow bored and move on to the next thing. At times, I got stronger or faster, but these fitness flings were't truly fulfilling me. I needed something more satisfying-a workout so enjoyable that it didn't actually feel like work. So when I got invited to attend a cycling trip in Stowe, Vermont last summer with Trek Bikes and Trek Travel, I decided to go to spice things up a bit. What happened next completely changed my fitness and-at the risk of sounding dramatic-my life.

At the time, I had only trained on my bike solo, and though I loved it, I wasn't learning much on my own. I had never ridden more than 25 miles, and my only experience with "climbing" was a punchy hill in Central Park. So you can imagine how intimidated I felt to take on three straight days of riding in the Green Mountain State (key word: mountain).

But during this trip, I got the opportunity to learn how to ride in a group in a supportive setting. We took things slow. The more experienced cyclists kindly and patiently showed me the ropes, and, for me, it was pretty much love at first ride.

Each day, we rolled out on quiet, country roads, under covered bridges, alongside lush green fields, past paint-chipped barns, roaming animals, and babbling brooks. These open roads offered the kind of bucolic tranquility a city girl only dreams of. We cruised, talked, listened, laughed, and bonded. We climbed a real mountain, flew down fast descents, and formed new friendships between hard pushes and soft-serve ice cream stops. It was all summer sun, blue skies, and fresh air, and as we passed through sleepy towns, it was impossible not to feel so crazy happy. At some point, it just hit me: I couldn't believe what I was missing being stuck inside four walls instead of outside on two wheels.

When I got back to New York City, I immediately ended my gym membership. I joined a local cycle club and rode my bike-a lot. I loved the exploration of riding in and around the city so much that when I traveled, I made sure to get my butt on a bike. I discovered country roads I never knew existed in my hometown in Pennsylvania. I rode along rail trails in Cape Cod, on flat stretches of bike lanes at the Jersey Shore, down sweeping descents in Santa Cruz, on hot chip seal in Texas Hill Country, and along the infamously challenging Queen K highway in Kona, Hawaii. At each location, I got to see sights, meet people, and experience things that I never would have had I not gone out with my bike-for free!- all while getting in a serious workout. (There are so many awesome options for fit travel-Once-in-a-Lifetime Fitness Retreats For Women, anyone?)

Before I knew it, I started noticing changes in my body too. Despite chasing long rides with burritos and recovery beers, fat seemed to melt away. My legs and butt-two places I always carried a little extra weight-started to shrink, and I became really proud of the two pistons that propelled my bike forward with each pedal stroke. I could push myself longer, and I grew stronger both physically and mentally. The inherent and limitless challenges of the outdoor terrain put an end to my boredom ruts. There were always new roads to explore, new routes to take, and new adventures to discover. This total-body, two-wheeled workout was fulfilling me in ways that no other exercise ever could. And despite working harder than I ever have in the past, it never felt like work. It was just plain fun.

I watched my total mileage go up at the same rate as my bank account balance since, well...#outsideisfree, and I was no longer shelling out an exorbitant monthly fee for sub-par gym facilities in the city. So I used the extra cash to buy some warm bike kits and rode straight through the winter. I found out that there's really no such thing as bad weather if you have the right gear. And to top it all off, I was having the best time I'd ever had working out and meeting some really rad, inspiring people along the way. (If you're curious, search the Instagram hashtag #outsideisfree. The 180,000 (and counting) results are like a sunset-drenched, swoon-worthy Pinterest board of #fitspiration.)

I'm not a quitter. But there are some things in life you eventually realize you need to walk away from. For me, the gym was one of them. That's not to say I don't occasionally enjoy a good group class or a hot date with weights-I still do. In fact, cross-training is essential to your success on the bike or in any endurance sport. But I make that more of the exception than the rule now.

Nearly one year later, I'm still separated from my gym. I'll admit, I think about it from time to time, but it never offered me any breathtaking vistas and I never met anyone cool there, so I know it's for the best. I have a new love now-the bicycle-and it's taken me places I never dreamed of going.

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