Nothing can beat the beauty of running in the great outdoors, the simple pleasure of sole on soil, says Richard Askwith...unless it's air-con and fluffy towels, says Rebecca Armstrong. But which is really better: the rolling fields or the rolling rubber?

The rugged rural runner

Many people think the best things in life are free: laughter, sex, friendship, natural beauty. Others insist really desirable things must be bought: from food and furniture to cars and designer gadgets. I veer between the two views. But on one point I am certain: exercise belongs in the former category.

Exercise is one of life's great free gifts, like sunsets and birdsong. You need nothing to enjoy it beyond a vaguely functioning body and a positive frame of mind.

I've been running for pleasure for 30 years or more. When I started, I was earning next to nothing, and the discovery of a way of letting off steam that would get me into neither trouble nor deeper debt was a life-changing liberation. Later, I exchanged the private romance of padding through half-deserted streets and parks while London slept for the richer pleasures of running in the countryside. For the past two decades, I've taken my exercise in rolling Northamptonshire fields, enjoying sights, sounds and smells so rich and various that it is impossible not to enjoy the experience. It's not just the beauty of the great outdoors – the fascination of the views and the wildlife and the changing seasons. It's the sense of independence and freedom, of doing something natural – of feeling foot on mud and breeze on sweat-drenched brow. Weights on the mind slip away after a run through the fields.

I'm 50 now and, I'm told, in good condition for my age. At least, I would be if I my blood pressure weren't constantly being sent skywards by those who insist on presenting exercise as a consumer product. The politicians selling off our playing fields urge the unfit to take out expensive gym subscriptions; PRs prompt journalists to insist we must have an ever- lengthening list of pricey equipment: hi-tech clothes, special food and drink; platform trainers; heart-rate monitors, sports watches, iPods and iPod holders; exercise DVDs; luxurious changing facilities; and, of course, the once laughable indulgence of a personal trainer... It's as if some conspiracy were afoot to turn physical activity into an exclusive branch of the leisure industry: not a simple joy available to everyone, but a luxury item available only to those who can afford it.

Who started this nonsense? Who said that leisure had to be an industry? When did we agree that excluding people was good? Who stripped us of our simple birthright – the ability to get outside and exert ourselves for fun when the mood takes us, as countless previous generations have done, and as countless millions in less pampered cultures still do?

I blame the mindset of the politicians who think spending money on sport means buying Olympic medals rather than putting open spaces within the reach of ordinary people. I blame the entertainment tycoons who put sports such as football beyond the reach of anyone unable to spend thousands on Sky subscriptions and season tickets.

Above all, I blame us, for swallowing unquestioningly the marketing poison that redefines human beings as consumers.

I've nothing against gyms per se. I use them myself, when convenient. It's good insurance against injury, to do zero-impact sessions from time to time. But gym training is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Nor am I suggesting that it is wrong to spend money on enjoying oneself. I've spent a fair bit on petrol over the years, driving to places where there are mountains to run on. And it's scarcely a year since I spent nearly £80 on a pair of Vibram FiveFingers – a thin "foot glove" that allows you to run shoeless, as if you were barefoot, with less risk of puncture-wounds than if your feet were completely naked. But that is, I think, the sum total of my expenditure on exercise in the past decade and, if necessary, I could have done without either. I hate the thought that others may be deterred from discovering my sport's simple, life-enhancing joys because they have been told that it can't be done without expenditure.

I'm still running regularly in middle-age for the simple reason that I enjoy it. I don't exercise to be virtuous, slim or healthy. It's a pleasure, which I enjoy all the more because it's outward-looking – an extra way of exploring and interacting with the world. To me, it seems insane to spend your running hours on treadmills, cocooning yourself from the world via headphones and focusing inwards (via heart-rate monitors and wall-mirrors) on the effort you are making.

Yet the consensus among friends and colleagues is that my habits, not those of the gym bunnies, are eccentric.

I suppose some of the things I do – running on mountains, or taking part in 24-hour challenges – might be considered extreme. But it's not just the extreme stuff that bothers people. It's the whole idea of no-frills outdoor exercise. "What, run? On grass and mud? Whatever the weather? Without any fancy equipment? You must be mad..." I'm sure people didn't think like this 30 years ago. They do now. And if I'm still running in 30 years' time – as I plan to be – they'll probably lock me up.

Excuse me. I can feel my blood pressure rising again. I think I'd better go for a run.

Richard Askwith is the author of 'Feet in the Clouds: a Tale of Fell-running and Obsession' (Aurum, £8.99)

The urban gym bunny

Sore shoulders from hunching over my PC; irritation at an inbox full of emails addressed to Rachel Armstrong; a feeling of tightness around my waistband after another tea-break cake: all symptoms of the necessary evil of a full-time office job, but ones that can be banished easily. Whether it's a case of lethargy or lassitude, the gym'll fix it.

I preach with the fervour of the converted. By nature, I'm a coach potato, not a gym bunny. For me, exercise can have its pleasurable moments but it will always be a chore, a responsibility to my health, both physical and mental, as well as to my dress size. But I've realised that it has to be done, and if I'm going to spend time sweating, I prefer to do it to somewhere that's cool in summer and warm in winter. Where there are three different sizes of fluffy towel. I like hairdryers on demand and Molton Brown in the showers.

At my gym, I can surf the internet, read a paper and peruse the sportswear for sale by the lifts. There's a sauna, a steam room, a Jacuzzi and even a spa, where white-coated dominatrices massage out spinal kinks with such efficiency that their victims cry out in exquisite agony. Sybaritic? Yes. Expensive? Hideously. Even more so if I don't go frequently, when the price-per-visit soars to £50 a swim, and an exercise class can end up costing more than my trainers. But it's convenient – I can go from desk to treadmill in less than 10 minutes – and proximity is key. I've learnt that if it's tricky to do, hard to get to or can be wriggled out of, I will lose my will to move and exercise goes out the window.

I hated exercise as a child, thanks to asthma and an ambivalence to team sports that saw me wheezing the wrong way around a rounders pitch. Field. Whatever. I faked accidents to get out of cross-country running and limped for a week to give my injuries credence. The first time I exercised out of choice was at university, attending unthreatening, if undignified-sounding, "legs, bums and tums" classes. Since then, I've tried three or four kinds of yoga, developed an enthusiasm for indoor-climbing that lasted a year or two, and had a go at orienteering. Over the years I've longed for a Damascene conversion that sees me embracing a new world where I run marathons while laughing with joy or take up a martial art only to find that I am a natural.

Instead, learning to swim properly, with my face in the water, embarrassingly late in life, opened the door to a new – if costly – era of exercise. When my local swimming baths closed, I joined a gym with a pool. I increased my repertoire of strokes and upped my lengths. Then I moved offices and joined a new gym, with a pool but also the trimmings listed above. Because the pool was often crowded, I started to look into other options. It started with a PowerPlate class (waving my arms around on a vibrating platform for 30 minutes sounded pleasantly not like exercise). Then I tried Body Pump, a group activity that mixes lifting weights with pumping Euro house. Then I dipped my toe into aqua aerobics and almost drowned laughing.

Finally, I ventured into the gym proper and discovered that, in the right circumstances, even running can be fun. It involves a treadmill with built in air-con. While running outside always feels as if I'm in a games lesson, running in the gym I pay for reminds me I'm an adult and that I choose to exercise because it makes me feel good, rather than being forced to by a sadistic PE teacher. If I'm in the mood for some masochism, I can take an exercise class, but if I want to go solo, it's not a problem. After proximity, choice is everything. And at the gym, everyone's there to exercise. For the self-conscious, a run round the park or the pavement can be agony, with white-van men hooting judgements on everything from your speed to the effectiveness of your sports bra.

While smug al fresco exercisers might look down on gym rats like me, I think that working out in the great outdoors is not only overrated, but downright perilous. Jog on the road and you risk knackering your knees on unforgiving asphalt or getting squashed by unsympathetic drivers. Stick to grass and you'll run into hayfever and heat (in summer), mud and darkness (in winter) and the year-round hazards of unspayed dogs with anger-management issues and eager jaws or uneven ground on which to turn an ankle. All that fresh air is full of insects to swallow as I gasp my way onwards, and passers-by to stare at me as I cough up bits of wing. At the rate I go, I get lapped by children on scooters and, worst of all, if I want to listen to music while slogging away, I can't simply prop my iPod on a handy piece of gym equipment – I have to stow it in a bum bag. And then be seen in public.

Now, with a landmark birthday looming and a LBD to fit into, I go to the gym at least four times a week, but I have to make a confession. While the climate-controlled chamber has become my happy place, I must admit that despite my carping, I can't break the habit of hour-long walks around a nearby park a couple of times a week. So while the gym has fixed it for me, there's always room for a bit of a breeze in my treadmill-filled, iron-pumping paradise.

Rebecca Armstrong is deputy features editor of 'The Independent'

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