Why Obama’s Former Secret Service Agent Loves Exercising Outdoors

Nicole Pajer
by Nicole Pajer
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Why Obama’s Former Secret Service Agent Loves Exercising Outdoors

As a former Secret Service agent of 13 years, Evy Poumpouras learned the importance of being ready for anything. The one thing that prepared her for her past life of protecting the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush was training outdoors — in all sorts of unpredictable conditions. The security expert got her first taste of exercising in nature when she entered the New York City Police Academy early in her career. After realizing how much she could accomplish on a patch of grass and taking note of the mental acuity gained by working through obstacles like rain, frigid weather and heat, the athlete was instantly hooked.

Today, Poumpouras has retired from the secret agent life and spends her time behind a desk, serving as an on-air national security correspondent for networks like NBC, MSNBC, CNN and HLN. But that hasn’t caused her to take her workouts indoors. The fitness enthusiast trains five days a week and still does all of her strength and cardio routines outside.

MyFitnessPal caught up with Poumpouras to discuss her tips for making outdoor workouts in inclement weather more bearable, her go-to, do-anywhere fitness maneuvers and why it’s important to train your mind just as hard as you train your body.

Q: What do you love most about training outdoors?

Poumpouras: When training outside, you really have no control over what happens around you. Mother Nature has an amazing way of making you pay attention to the little things that are normally overlooked in the gym. A change in the wind’s direction and sudden thunderstorm can turn your easy 5K into a rain-soaked obstacle course full of puddles and fallen tree limbs. The track you always run on may be closed, the weather may suddenly change for the worse or you may find that secluded section of the beach where you train is packed with weekenders. Being forced to switch to a Plan B fitness routine teaches you how to adapt in other unexpected situations in your life as well. Although you can’t control the world, you can control how you react to it.

Q: What are some tips for prepping to exercise in harsh outdoor conditions?

Poumpouras: My number 1 tip: Wear the right clothes to match the training conditions. I’ve found that you can literally train in any weather condition as long as you’re properly dressed for it. If people can climb to the top of Mount Everest, then there’s no excuse to avoid training in bad weather. Being mentally strong enough to train outside means first being physically ready to do so. If you’re too cold or too hot 5 minutes into your workout, you’re not going to be able to focus on your fitness. I always dress for about 20 degrees cooler than the actual temperature outside. Although I’m usually cold at first, assuming it’s a cold day, within 10 minutes I’m warmed up enough to not need more layers. It’s also important to wear layers you can easily strip off or put on if the weather happens to change. And having a good pair of shoes, gloves and a hat can make unbearable weather actually enjoyable.

Another important tip is to just make it fun. When you’re training outside, try to see everything as a training tool — a tree limb becomes your pullup bar and a park bench your stair stepper. There are no rules.

Q: What are some of your favorite outdoor workouts?

Poumpouras: Because my job as a Secret Service special agent required me to be moving on my feet constantly, I learned the importance of designing a fitness routine that incorporated a mixture of everything, like running a 5K then doing several rounds of burpees, pushups and pullups. This way, I feel like I’m physically ready for whatever comes my way, not just a good long-distance runner or fast sprinter.

Here are two favorites:

1. Burpees: They are a total-body workout you can do anywhere and will be completely exhausted in less than 20 minutes. To do a burpee, start by standing up with your feet shoulder-width apart. Now bend at the knees and waist, put your hands on the ground and walk or jump your feet back so they’re straight behind you. You should be in the top portion of a pushup position. Now do a pushup. After your pushup, stand back up and jump up in the air while raising your hands over your head. That’s one repetition.

I like to do these in a ladder set from 10–1. For example, I start by doing 10 repetitions of burpees, then rest for 30–60 seconds, then do 9 repetitions, then rest, 8 reps and so forth all the way to 1 repetition. When you’re all done, you’ve completed 55 burpees.

2. 5 x 5 Sprints: All you need is a little running room, preferably on grass. The workout consists of doing 5 exercises for 5 repetitions each followed by a sprint. I start by doing 5 burpees, followed immediately by 5 pushups, 5 lunges with each leg, 5 squats and 5 situps. After my situps, I stand up and sprint as fast as I can for about 50 yards. I then walk back and start it again. I do this 5 times. To make this workout harder, I’ll usually increase the number of repetitions from 5 to 10 or wear a 10-pound weight vest throughout.

The best part about these workouts is it only takes you to do them. There’s no fancy gym equipment needed, just some space and a bit of willpower. The best way to start is to just do one rep. That’s it. Once you can do one rep, then do another. You can gauge how good you feel and stop when you need to.

Q: How do you motivate yourself to work out?

Poumpouras: Although it’s important to listen to your body, “not feeling it” is usually a state of mind. When that happens, I do three things: 1) I remind myself it’s just as easy to do the workout than not do it; 2) I put on my favorite workout playlist and 3) I tell myself if after 5 minutes, I’m still not feeling it, then I’ll stop and walk home (which never happens). Interestingly enough, I’ve often found that my best workouts come on the days when I wasn’t feeling it.

Q: We all have those days where we didn’t push as hard as we would have liked to. How do you recover from a bad workout?

Poumpouras: If I’ve had a bad workout, I first ask “why?” Was I mentally distracted, was my diet way off from the night before or was I simply not in the mood? Any one of these things can wreak havoc on a good workout and cause you to go into a mental tailspin. The most important thing to remember is fitness is a life-long commitment filled with ups and downs. To use the forest from the tree analogy, you have to look at the whole gym, not just the treadmill in front of you. Remember, the most important thing is to stay consistent. By doing something physical nearly everyday, over the years, that effort will definitely add up in the win column.

Q: Why does mental fitness go hand in hand with physical fitness?

Poumpouras: Through my years as a special agent, I found that physical strength and mental strength are interconnected. Many times in training, we were physically pushed to the point where our bodies wanted to quit long before our minds did. In those situations, you would begin to see some of the most physically fit people quit — they weren’t yet mentally tough enough to push through the pain. When you can learn to quiet that voice in your head telling you to stop, you can accomplish a lot more physically than you ever thought possible.


About the Author

Nicole Pajer
Nicole Pajer

Nicole is freelance writer and health advocate that lives, works, and exercises in Los Angeles, California. She is published in The New York Times, Woman’s Day, Men’s Journal, Hemisphere’s, Men’s Fitness, and Parade. You can read more from Nicole at her website, or follow her on Twitter at @nicolepajer.