White-Hot Winter Workouts

Last Editorial Review: 1/24/2005

Keeping fit is a blast with cold-weather sports

By Wendy C. Fries
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

Yes, the weather outside is frightful, but this time of year is so delightful ... for trying a great new winter workout.

With so many hot winter activities out there, from the total-body workout of cross-country skiing to the challenge of golfing when everything is white on white, you're bound to find something that appeals.

For Chris Frado, that something is cross-country skiing.

"It's the be-all and end-all," enthuses Frado, president of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association. "Cross-country works all your major muscle groups -- it doesn't leave anything out. It's the best aerobic activity. It's forgiving on your joints, you can do it at any pace you want, you can do it as a child, as an adult, you can incorporate your children and your grandchildren!"

As if that weren't enough, a 160-pound adult can burn more than 650 calories an hour skiing cross-country.

For an even simpler snowy-day workout, try snow-shoeing. With easy-to-use gear that slips on over your shoes and nothing more than basic walking skills required, it's a shoe-in for the easiest-to-learn winter sport. And that same 160-pound adult will burn over 950 calories hoofing it for an hour.

Got a need for speed? Downhill skiing might fit the bill. "I love the sheer thrill of careening down a mountain at upwards of 40 mph," raves downhill enthusiast Tony Herrig, who was born at the foot of Utah's Wasatch mountain range. Then there's "getting out into the fresh air and sunshine, experiencing the grandeur of alpine vistas, and challenging myself to learn new skills." All this comes with a great burn of 450 calories an hour.

If you're not so eager to go so fast, try ice skating. You can glide through 534 calories in an hour (and you can do it at an indoor rink when the weather doesn't cooperate).

If you're a golfer, there's no need to give it up for the winter. When the links go white, grab some orange golf balls, skip the cart, and you'll swing through more than 340 calories an hour. And don't forget the gold standard for available, affordable exercise, whatever the weather: walking. Paced at a 15-minute mile, a 160-pound person burns 384 calories over an hour.

Dress for Workout Success

All revved up to get out and brave the chill? First, there are a few vital safety tips you should keep in mind:

  • Stay hydrated. People are subject to dehydration in colder environments, says Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. Drinking plenty of water "allows our thermoregulatory systems to operate optimally, keeping us warm." Forgot your water bottle? Don't be tempted by that wonderland of snow. Aside from its questionable cleanliness, "drinking" snow can lower your core body temperature, possibly causing hypothermia.
  • Artificial fibers are best when bundling up. There's an old saying, "Cotton kills." That's because it "acts like a sponge, absorbing moisture from the snow" says Frado, and instead of wicking the moisture away, it holds it close to the body. Stick to synthetic microfibers ("wonder fabrics," Frado calls them) next to your skin. Add a second layer of a lightweight material like fleece, then top it all off with a windproof, waterproof outer shell and you're ready to roll -- or run, sled, or shovel!

"There's an old saying, 'Cotton kills.' That's because it acts like a sponge, absorbing moisture from the snow."

  • Skip the drink -- if it's alcohol, that is. Whether you're going for a wobbly walk across a frozen lake or a swoop down a favorite sledding hill, leave the alcoholic for later. Alcohol dilates blood vessels, rushing blood to the surface of your skin -- and dissipating heat instead of holding it inside, close to your core. It can also be a diuretic, robbing you of fluids. Instead, stick to the winter fitness drink of choice: water.
  • Warm up thoroughly, and take it easy. When it's really cold out, it can be harder to breathe, which puts us at risk of bronchial spasms, says Comana. "Give yourself a slightly longer warm-up because of colder, drier weather. Taper down your exercise just a little and put a guard over your mouth, so that air is pre-warmed as it comes through." Remember, if you think you're too tired to ski that last run, sled that last hill, or go that final mile, then you are, says Herrig. "Don't get talked into something you're too worn out to do."
  • When starting a new sport, get a lesson. "Sometimes your natural instincts will take you away from what is the most stable thing," says Cristy Harvey, ski instructor at Mt. Bachelor's Nordic Center in Bend, Ore. "And go out with people who are at your own speed -- have a relaxed, fun time."

When You Stay In

When it's raining buckets or sleet's pinging off the roof, that's a perfect time for an indoor workout to complement what you're doing outdoors.

Cross-training is the way to go, says Bryant Stamford, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky.

"We have a tendency to gravitate toward one activity," which can lead to overuse injuries, he says. "Cross-training can give your body a break" but still keep your fitness level up.

Whether you choose power-walking around a track, lifting weights, or riding a stationary bike, the goal is to use your muscles in ways different from your primary sport.

If you want your indoor workout to enhance that outdoor sport, try matching the motions. Love running outdoors? Try a treadmill. Happy to hike when the weather's good? Get on the stepper at the gym when the weather's bad.

Or if you tried cross-country skiing but found yourself falling down even when you were standing still, try fine-tuning your equilibrium with yoga. Yoga not only aids balance, but it can increase breathing capacity, strength, and flexibility, says Sandra Moen, an Oregon yoga instructor and downhill skier.

So as the mercury drops, don't hibernate -- try something new. Bundle up right, stay hydrated and safe, then let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Published Jan. 21, 2005

SOURCES: Chris Frado, president, Cross Country Ski Areas Association. Tony Herrig, programmer, Utah. Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist; spokesperson, American Council on Exercise, San Diego, Calif. Cristy Harvey, ski instructor, Mount Bachelor's Nordic Center, Bend, Ore. Bryant Stamford, PhD, professor of exercise physiology, University of Louisville, Kentucky. Sandra Moen, yoga instructor, Oregon. Sarah T. Grohmann, the Cooper Aerobics Center, Dallas.

©2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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