McHenry County offers outdoor exercise opportunities providing added health benefits

McHenry County offers trails, beach yoga, cycling club, pickleball and more to stay active outdoors

Valerie Koehn, Val Oldenburg, John Scheider and Donna Quinlan hike Wednesday, May 10, 2023, at the Boone Creek Conservation Area in Bull Valley.

For Valerie Koehn of Crystal Lake, exercise isn’t always just hopping on treadmills or elliptical machines inside her local fitness center.

Sometimes it’s exploring McHenry County’s many nature trails, learning about clouds, watching butterflies soar, playing a game of searching for gnomes or gathering prairie seeds to help reseed conservation parks.

It is doing something she enjoys, which is what fitness experts say is the key to continuing and benefiting from an exercise routine long term.

“It keeps me moving, keeps me young,” Koehn, 72, said. “My mom didn’t move. … then she couldn’t move.”

Pat Reed, fitness manager with Northwestern Medicine Huntley Health and Fitness Center, encourages outdoor activity for mind and body.

“Find something you like to do and do that something outdoors,” Reed said. “If the motivation is just weight loss or building strength versus if you actually enjoy it, your exercising is better. Whether rollerblading, cycling or pickleball and you start to get on a routine, this is huge for continuing.”

It takes about 180 days to get in a full-length habit and about 30 to 60 days for it to become a routine, Reed said.

“Emotionally, it clams me down more. It centers me. It makes me more aware of God and nature, and it is just a time to be by yourself and to kind of contemplate and think.”

—  Crystal Lake resident and Century Hikers Club member Valerie Koehn

“If you can find something you like to do and you do that for about six months, you will most likely do that for a long time,” he said.

Rick Perry, 64, is president of the McHenry County Bicycle Club, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

The club, which has about 120 members, has riders of all ages who ride at various paces. The club hosts daytime and nighttime rides along roads and on trails.

Cyclists benefit from the fresh air which helps release stress, anxiety and depression, and it’s an exercise that puts little pressure on their knees. They also become part of a community who encourage each other, socialize after their rides, go camping and have game nights, Perry said.

John Scheider, Donna Quinlan, Valerie Koehn, and Val Oldenburg hike Wednesday, May 10, 2023, at the Boone Creek Conservation Area in Bull Valley.

The high you get when cycling is “similar to a runner’s high,” said Perry who is a former runner. “You get in a zone when peddling, especially when you are with a whole group of people and you get moving. You get the draft of other cyclers cutting the wind resistance.”

Outdoor activities can continue into the winter months, too.

Koehn, a member of the Century Hikers Club through the McHenry County Conservation District, said during the winter months, the hikers do outdoor activities such as snow-shoeing.

Koehn said any exercising she does outside among nature calms, relaxes and centers her.

She also has made new friends during her hikes and “sees sites seldom seen,” such as bison, different birds, butterflies, wildflowers, rivers, lakes and various natural landscapes and habitats she didn’t know existed in the county, she said.

Additionally, as a perk of being a member of the Century Hikers Club, she keeps a log and earns little prizes at certain mile marks. Currently, she’s logged 409 miles. When she hits 500, she will receive her choice of a CD with bird calls or frog calls and a club pin.

Century Hikers, an incentive club for members 14 and older to get outdoors and exercise, also has a Facebook page. Hikers use the site to post where they will be hiking at various times and days and welcome anyone to join them, which was especially beneficial during COVID-19 pandemic, Koehn said.

“Emotionally, it calms me down more. It centers me. It makes me more aware of God and nature, and it is just a time to be by yourself and to kind of contemplate and think.”

Although exercising indoors still reduces stress, anxiety and depression, Reed said doing activities outdoors welcomes additional benefits, including sunlight, fresh air and vitamin D.

“It changes the environment a little bit. Most people, when in a routine start to feel a little bored or acclimated to what they have been doing, but then doing that [same activity] outside changes that and can invigorate you. If running or cycling outside, you get wind resistance and you can improve endurance a little bit.”

Donna Albano of Woodstock is a yoga instructor who leads yoga classes at West Beach through the Crystal Lake Park District. Classes begin June 9 and will be offered from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m. on Fridays through August.

“The general benefits of exercising outside, it reduces anxiety,” said Albano, who has taught all levels of yoga for 19 years and is a personal trainer. “I see a big number of people with sleep disorders who need to reduce anxiety to relax.”

Being outside and doing yoga by the water is “very soothing,” Albano said. Beach yoga improves stress and anxiety levels, posture, sleep and arthritis, and the soft sand at the beach versus a hard gym floor is easier on the knees.

Albano said yoga at the beach is a “gentle yoga,” where people are “soaking up the scenery,” being soothed by the water, and when doing the tree pose, actual using a tree rather than a wall.

Where to find outdoor options:

A list of McHenry County Conservation trails can be found at

Outdoor activities offered by the Crystal Lake Park District, such as yoga and pickle ball, can be found at