Today I got up with the birds and walked fast around my neighborhood for 30 minutes. It’s not power-walking—it lacks that butt-shifting thing that comes from keeping one foot on the ground at all times—but that’s okay because power-walking done correctly looks just incredibly dumb.

The thing is, fast-walking the way I do it looks dumber. I know this because whenever I walk past a plate-glass window, as I did in Palm Springs last year, I can see that what feels forceful and vigorous just looks like running’s lazy-ass little brother. Nothing about it says, There goes a sleek specimen with an optimized heart rate! It says, That bag lady must be in a hurry.

Yes I did that in Palm Springs.

I do it every morning and have for 10 years. It was born of necessity. In my avid youth, StairMaster and swimming pool were daily obsessions. But years passed, a baby was had…and this working mom could no longer figure out how to work out. The gym was tough on the family budget. Running was tough on my knees. I had to do something with my natural nervous energy.

So I began stealing from sleep every morning, leaving my husband on kid-watch while I walked as fast as I could, rain or less rain, on several 30-minute routes around my neighborhood. Though it never felt quite legit as a workout, here was an activity unencumbered by equipment, achievable anywhere, spontaneously accomplished, and gloriously free of charge. It made me feel great, yes—but mostly it was sustainable.

The fact that sustainability had replaced the size of my butt as my standard of success was alarming—who had I become?—but a similar shift was rocking the zeitgeist. Everywhere I looked, fit people were bringing their workouts down to earth. Science confirmed the benefits of more frequent, less strenuous, interval-based exercise. Books like Born to Run—which encouraged joggers to reclaim Homo sapiens’ naturally optimal stride by running barefoot—and Just Ride—an ex-racer’s manifesto lauding bikes not as racing vehicles but as practical transportation—extolled a whole new philosophy of exercise: stripped of the prestige gear, consumerist expense, and iron man intensity, and distilled to its ancient natural context of, well…life.

Enter Mary Elder. I didn’t meet her kickboxing a tree or hauling a bag of sand up the Leschi stairs—but I might have. The Seattle screenwriter and mother engages in that sort of behavior at least three times a week. “I believe that anything you could do in a gym you can do outside—and it’s better for you because you’re more fulfilled and engaged,” she told me. “It improves your outlook on life and your connection to the earth. And your skin!”

My Palm Springs bag lady loved her.

Her website, Free Range Fitness, details her tricks for turning the world into the gym. At the beach Elder will fill her kids’ buckets and lift them like kettlebells for shoulder workouts. She’ll fill duffles with sand, bungee cord them to the lifeguard tower, and box. At the pumpkin patch she’ll do bicep curls with gourds; on the sidelines of her kids’ soccer games she’ll grab a ball, hold it high over her head, then hurl it to the ground repeatedly. (“It’s fantastic for your core, better than a crunch.”)

When she says things like, “I love that weather is the wild card in the hand I get dealt,” she isn’t being a sap. Rainy days equal empty playgrounds, after all, so those are the days she does monkey-bar knee tucks and uses swings in the ways a gym goer would use a fitness ball. She says our hills make Seattle the perfect city for interval training: She’ll drop a handful of pinecones at the top of a hill, pluck one every time she sprints back up to the pile, and be done once she’s collected all the cones. “It’s pretty hunter-gatherer,” she laughs. “But if anyone told us we needed a dentist to brush our teeth every day we’d say it was madness. We don’t need gyms or trainers! We know how to do this stuff!”

But do we want to do it in public? Some 90 percent of women over age 30 resist outdoor workouts out of self-consciousness. Elder shrugs: It’s a sea change we need time to embrace. (Her children are cool with everything but squats, which they beg her to do indoors.) When she was a kid, after all, fitness running was still such a novelty, her concerned dad would pull over to offer a jogger a ride.

It’s all, she smiles, in the story you tell yourself. “I’m out there moving, breathing fresh air, looking at the blossoms, laughing with a friend,” she says. “I didn’t drive across town to a windowless gym to breathe body odor, stare at a screen, and get sprayed with sweat from the guy on the next machine.” 

Could it be that “feeling good” is the new “looking good”? The dork you saw this morning looming out of the predawn mist would very much like to think so.