Winter can be a great season for improving your health and fitness, although with colder temps and less natural light, it’s easy to be lethargic and inactive.
But there’s a lot to be gained from being active — outdoors — in the winter months. And there’s no shortage of options to get you moving outside: skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowboarding, winter mountaineering, snowshoeing, and skijoring, to name just a few.
Whether you choose a winter sport or a brisk walk around the block, being active outside in the winter can have big payoffs for both your mental and physical health, according to Dave Engle, a registered clinical exercise physiologist with EvergreenHealth.
Stave off seasonal depression: "It has been proven that natural light — or lack of it — affects mood,” Dave says. “Getting outside in fresh air and sunlight, even if it’s not as bright as we’d like, helps fight cabin fever and winter depression, and it gives us a boost of vitamin D.”
Make better food choices: When a person is regularly active, they often change their food choices, too. “When we’re exercising, we tend to eat healthier and make choices that are good for energy level and overall health,” he notes.
Expend calories: Obviously, you’ll burn a lot more calories by participating in a winter sport than you will sitting on the couch, and that helps with losing any holiday weight gain.
Get or stay in shape: Winter sports are great for building muscle tone and stamina. They are also great for heart health. “Sports like downhill skiing and snowboarding are what we consider anaerobic, meaning they are great for building strength, speed, coordination and muscle mass,” Dave explains, “whereas cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are more aerobic in nature, providing a good cardio workout and burning more fat.”
What you need to know about preventing injuries
As with any sport, it’s always wise to take precautions that lower the risk of injury. Dave says his winter schedule includes a regular flow of patients with preventable injuries.
Winter sports injuries, he adds, are almost always due to one of three reasons:
#1– Lack of initial conditioning: “People go straight from the couch to the ski slopes or whatever sport,” Dave notes. “You should start conditioning for that specific sport at least a couple weeks in advance, and more if you’ve not been exercising at all.”
#2 – Lack of skill: Dave stresses the importance of knowing proper technique and use of equipment. “Equipment is much more intensive with winter sports than most others. It’s critical that you know how to handle equipment and use it properly.
Make sure it’s adjusted to fit your body. Poles that are too long, snowshoes that don’t fit correctly, or improper clothing for snow mountaineering, for example, can contribute to injury.”
#3 – Over-extending skill level: Intermediate skiers going off on black diamonds is a prime example of enthusiasts who over-extend their skill level, putting themselves — and possibly others — at risk.
Stay within your limitations, and if you want to progress in your sport of choice, get the training and guidance you need,” Dave cautions. Injuries can also be caused by overuse and doing a new skill or sport too much.
#4 – Know your environment: “Knowing the environment is absolutely critical. You need to be aware of temperatures, storm fronts, icy conditions and avalanches,” he advises. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a novice or a veteran athlete; if the environmental conditions are dangerous, you are at risk.
With a smart approach to safety, staying active during the winter will give you a great boost and help you head into spring stronger and healthier.