The Joy of Winter Sports

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It’s wintertime, and the living is cozy. Our instincts tell us to hibernate and curl up in front of the fire with some snacks and a hot toddy. For exercise, most people literally get back on the treadmill by moving their outdoor workouts into the gym, with all the bad lighting, bad TV news, and crowding that entails.

But gliding on frozen water is a special thrill that’s rarely available the rest of the year, so embrace the season and enjoy one of the sports unique to winter—ice-skating, snowshoeing, downhill and cross-country skiing, or snowboarding. With a bit of a travel budget and some creativity, even residents of balmy climates can join in.

Sure, you could just continue your year-round routine when the weather changes by getting some different gear (see this recent article on cold-weather running). But there’s something magical about shaking up your routine altogether and following the planet’s annual journey into the cold.

Sharpen Your Blades
For city dwellers, ice-skating is the most accessible choice and the best option south of the Mason-Dixon Line. You may even have a dusty pair of skates in the back of your closet. And while you might not recall all of the tricks you knew back in your school days, it shouldn’t take long to remember why you enjoyed the sport so much.

Some cities have multiple ice rinks, and many are outdoors, where you can enjoy fresh air and see the holiday lights. There’s something meditative about watching harried shoppers and commuters rush by while you circle the rink and dodge falling children. Rinks can be crowded, though, especially on weekends and during school holidays, so it’s a good idea to call ahead and ask when things are relatively quiet.

If there’s a good long cold snap in your area, skating on ponds and lakes becomes possible, though it’s important to be careful. Always check with experienced local skaters and err on the side of caution; it’s best to stick to places marked for skating, and no one should ever skate alone.
If you live in a town that gets occasional snow, you should never miss the opportunity to go sledding, even if you’re riding a scrap of cardboard down a hill in your neighborhood park for a few minutes. Sure, it’s more “normal” if you have children with you to justify your presence, but we won’t tell if you don’t.
 
Find a Mountain
Downhill (or Alpine) skiing and its close cousin, snowboarding, may require more of a trek, unless you live in Salt Lake City (which has seven excellent ski areas within an hour of the city). The sport’s pleasures are obvious: gorgeous mountain views, thrilling speeds and jumps, trendy colorful clothing, and flirty lodge bars. Plus, the elevation often takes skiers above gray clouds and into dazzling sunlight, which helps chase away the winter blues.
 

Get Out in Nature
Nordic (aka cross-country) skiing is a quieter, calmer, and much less expensive alternative to Alpine skiing. Depending on your skill and equipment, it can range from simply hiking in the snow to “skate skiing,” which uses special skis and a motion like ice-skating to move quickly.

Lessons can help with cross-country skiing, but they aren’t really necessary. James Dickhoff, the president and founder of the Pagosa [Springs] Nordic Ski Club in southern Colorado, loves the sensory experience of cross-country skiing as much as the exercise. “It’s really beautiful, very serene with the fresh snow on the trees. And snow absorbs sound, so it’s a really peaceful environment. It’s meditative.” He also enjoys the social aspect. “Kids, adults, beginners, and experts can all use the same trails together and have a blast. And for the most part you’re not going at a high speed, so you can carry on a conversation.”

OK, but is it good exercise? Dickhoff claims that cross-country skiing “uses every muscle in your body, and incorporates your balance skills as well. It’s a wonderful workout.”

Snowshoeing is an even easier sport to get into. Just find a trail and strap on a pair of snowshoes. Although the feel of the equipment takes some getting used to, it takes no more skill than walking.

This all sounds wonderful, but what if you don’t live in the Rockies? Seasonal changes are worth adapting to in subtropical climates as well, even if that just means wearing a long-sleeve shirt while jogging, or lifting weights at Muscle Beach in Venice instead of surfing Malibu’s Zuma Beach.

Ken Ruiz has lived in South Florida his entire life, and his winter sport is bicycling, along with jogging, Rollerblading, and the occasional triathlon. “The cooler air makes a big difference, so it’s a much better time to ride [bikes].”

A surprising number of Southwestern cities are also close to ski areas. The Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff (with views of the Grand Canyon from one chairlift) is just two and a half hours from Phoenix. Albuquerque and Santa Fe have ski areas nearby, and are only four to five hours from El Paso. And the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area near Yosemite is a five-hour drive (or a one-hour flight) from Los Angeles.

So honor the season this year, and find the winter sport you love.

Calorie numbers are calculated for a 155-lb person. Source: Harvard Health Letter

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution. He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association; his work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.

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