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No more excuses: Online exercise group gets members outdoors

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Big Bend, TX. Photo by Jamie Brierton
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Big Bend, TX. Photo by Jamie Brierton
Austin Photo Set: News_Austin fit_online exercise groups_april 2013_5
Photo by Jamie Brierton
Austin Photo Set: News_Austin fit_online exercise groups_april 2013_4
Austin Fit April issue. Courtesy of Austin Fit Magazine
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Editor's note: The April issue of Austin Fit Magazine focuses on the future of fitness. Take a sneak peek into the issue with this feature on Hill Country Outdoors, written by Courtenay Verret.

From hiking to biking to camping to kayaking — there is no shortage of activities to keep an outdoor enthusiast busy in Austin. But what happens when your friends aren't as enthusiastic about the great outdoors, or when the demands of their daily lives don't allow them to partake in the fun with you?

Look no further than Hill Country Outdoors (HCO).

More than a meet-up group, HCO is a volunteer-run organization that has connected active Austinites with each other since 2000 via their website (hillcountryoutdoors.com). The set-up is simple: Members pay a fee according to the length of time they wish to participate in the organization (e.g., weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.). The fee allows them to partake in (and, in some cases, receive discounts on) a variety of activities that have been arranged by volunteer group leaders — everything from hikes and backpacking trips to pub crawls and dance lessons. There is no limit to the number of activities members can participate in, and the activities are plentiful.

Jamie Brierton, proprietor of HCO, explained that what makes the group unique is its consistency. “There are a million meet-up groups, but they are more loosely organized,” she said. “Someone can lead a [meet-up] group for a while and grow tired of it; then the group dies. [With HCO], people seem to really value that it's a consistent leader and group of people.”

What also makes the group special, according to Brierton, is its focus on new members who might be hesitant to participate because they are too shy or intimidated to walk into a group of strangers by themselves. Upon request, HCO will assign a “buddy coordinator” (an outgoing volunteer from the group) to meet the newbie ahead of the event and introduce him or her to the others. “You feel more comfortable going with someone you've already met... it's a nice benefit if you're shy or unsure of what you're supposed to be doing,” Brierton said.

Eva Moore joined HCO in 2009. She was new to Austin, and, although she had already made a small group of friends, she was looking to meet more people. Today, Moore is an HCO group leader. “I had done all the events, I knew pretty much everyone; I wanted [the group] to have more leaders that could show [new members] this cool stuff to do,” she said. “I like doing lots of different stuff around Austin, and it’s a pretty wide open calendar — anything from simple happy hours to kayaking and zip lining and camping and just about anything you could think of outdoors.”

What is also great about the group, according to Moore, is that it takes away the hassle of having to organize different events by oneself: “I like being able to go to someone else’s events, to be able to look at the calendar on short notice and [the event is] already planned, they’ve got a spot picked out, a reservation made, etc.”

Although there are a number of single members in the group, Brierton was quick to assert that HCO is not a singles group. All demographics are represented, from the singleton who is new in town, to couples with children who are seeking family outdoor activities, to long-time Austinites who are just looking for something fun to do. The ages of group members range greatly, although the majority are in their thirties.

There are lots of opportunities for people who are interested in HCO to check it out without having to commit at first. The group holds a new member meeting once a month, as well as a public happy hour where prospective members can meet group members and ask questions.

Brierton said that HCO’s biggest struggle is getting word out to the public. “For all the people who know we’re there, there are thousands who don’t. You’d think [the group] would be 99 percent new [to Austin] people, but it’s not. There are a lot [of group members] who have lived here their whole lives.” She recommends that people interested in HCO attend a new member meeting or visit their website to view pictures and videos and to learn more about their events.

Ultimately, HCO seems to do an excellent job of achieving its end goal: connecting active Austinites with each other. “I’ve made a really good group of friends through the club,” said Moore. “If I haven’t seen my friends in a while, I can jump on the calendar and say, ‘Oh, there’s my friend I haven’t seen in a while; I’m going to sign up [for that event].” With no commitments required and an activity for pretty much everyone, there is little to lose and only new friends to be gained.

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The April issue of Austin Fit Magazine is on stands now.

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