It’s winter. It’s cold. And we’re thrilled. Why? Because winter is the only time you can skate, or ski, or fly down a hill on a sled. Feel the crunch of snow underfoot. Really appreciate a cup of hot chocolate upon returning home.
Winter has a singular beauty that is easy to miss with a scarf wrapped around your face. Look up, we say, and drink in the clear blue sky or the flurries swirling around you. While it seems to last forever, winter is with us only a scant few months. View winter as a fresh air treasure that will soon give way to hot, humid summer days.
You might be tempted to stay indoors to exercise at this time of year—there are plenty of options. But exercising outdoors one or more times per week brings unique health bonuses. According to Dr. Karen Thomas of Brooklyn, New York, there is 20% more fresh oxygen outside than indoors, which means the heart, brain and muscles get more of the big O when you work out in cold weather rather than in the house or at the gym.
So you’re convinced…more or less. How do you get the motivation to actually open the front door and step out? The answer is to find something fun to do. While we are probably not going to approach winter exercise with the gleeful abandon of people in their 20s and 30s, there are still lots of rewarding activities for our age group. Many senior organizations coordinate winter activities like skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding for members who enjoy outdoor activities. Or you can organize your own regular foray into winter with a group of friends and acquaintances.
Cold-weather activities for the Blue Hare woman
We looked at, assessed, gnawed on, and reached out to friends to find activities that offer health benefits with a lot of fun on the side. Most of those listed below have senior organizations (senior begins at 50 for some) that can steer you to local groups that can introduce you to their sport and others of comparable age and ability.
We start with the most obvious outdoor activity that is good in all seasons. When sidewalks and paths are clear, walking is the easiest, low-cost, minimal-investment way to keep moving in winter. Those looking to shed a few pounds might feel more comfortable walking in a big sweater or a coat than donning spandex and heading for the gym. While walking may not be the big calorie burn—(a brisk, 30-minute walk will burn around 160 calories)—it will help strengthen your bones, maintain a healthy weight, improve balance, and ward off conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Follow these tips from the American Council on Exercise to make the most of your walk. In 2015, The U.S. Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to promote walking and walkable communities, and many organizations and communities have walking programs that double as a social gathering—on the move.
Snowshoeing is just walking—but on steroids. It has been around for thousands of years and has become more sophisticated over time. Today snowshoeing is the fastest growing sport in the world—ahead of snowboarding, according to Snowshoe Magazine, which also cites a study by Snowsports Industries America (SIA), that shows that 40.8 percent of snowshoers are women (a number that is increasing rapidly). So how does it work? Snowshoes help you stay on top of snow by distributing your weight over a wider rea. And because the snow adds resistance and the shoes act like weights, it requires more muscle with each step and burns more energy–650-700 calories per hour—than walking or even running. Snowshoe Magazine includes a good intro for beginners, and guidelines for purchasing the right kind of snowshoes for your purposes. Because of the sport’s growing popularity, many ski resorts, Nordic centers, outfitters, and conservation areas now offer snowshoe rentals so you can try before you buy.
“Winter hiking has taught me that snow can be fun, the right clothes can overcome the biting cold, and that focusing on the positives makes the bad parts of winter more bearable. Snow transforms a beautiful forest or mountain top into an ethereal wonderland. A peaceful and picturesque view of the woods or a lake covered in snow is worth miles of hiking through deep powder.” This true appreciation of winter comes from This Runner’s Recipes, the blog of an enthusiastic winter hiker.
Hiking in the cold winter months, especially in the snow, can be excellent cardio exercise. Your legs and heart will work harder than with regular walking, burning up to 530 calories an hour. We found some guidelines for the equipment you will need on DealNews.com:
- A hat is the best tool for modulating your body heat—off when hot, on when cold.
- Wear several layers so that you can add or remove them: a lightweight synthetic first layer to wick away moisture; a heavier second layer, like fleece; and an outer layer that is waterproof and will block the wind.
- Footwear, the most important piece of gear, can range from a light hiking boot or running shoe to a good pair of waterproofed hiking boots that will keep your feet dry and warm. Consider them an investment if you plan to ford streams and hike through snow.
Invented in medieval Scotland, and with a long history in Canada, curling is rapidly growing in popularity with rinks popping up everywhere. The United States Curling Association (USCA) states there are more 165 curling clubs in approximately 40 states and approximately 16,000 curlers registered with the United States Curling Association. Curling is often called “chess on ice” because a great deal of strategy is called for. Curling also demands a surprising amount of overall fitness; you’ll burn around 265 calories per hour with a pace that one curler compares to interval training. Curling clubs in the US open their doors in February with an invitation to try the sport. This 5-minute YouTube video provides a concise overview.
Wear warm clothes that are easy to move in and rubber-soled sneakers–most facilities will have sliders you can strap onto your own shoes–before you decide to pursue the sport on a regular basis. If you’re interested in exploring curling, this eight-minute training video will show you how to get started. Admit it—curling looks a bit silly to the untrained eye, but it is more challenging than you thought. It is an Olympic sport, after all.
Riding a sled down snow-covered backyards, streets, and parks on a Flexible Flyer is an indelible memory for many of us. Ending up face first with a mouth full of snow was a rite of passage. It’s no less enjoyable today (minus the face full of snow part). Even if your formative years were spent where palm trees sway and you live in a snow belt now, riding a sled or toboggan, or tube or saucer, is a great way to have fun with family and friends. Trekking back up the slope will give your glutes and quads a good workout. And steering and balancing the sled help work your core muscles. Do this for an hour, burn 362 calories. In the “there’s a website for everything” category, Sledriding.com has a database of 869 sled riding hills located in 60 U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
6. Cross-Country (Nordic) Skiing
Knowing you’ll be burning 572 calories per hour will give you plenty of motivation to go outside and enjoy the peace and silence of the winter landscape while cross-country skiing. The barrier to entry is low: if you can walk, you can start cross-country skiing. Expert cross-country skiers may trek for miles in the wilderness, but beginners can take advantage of dedicated Nordic or ski touring areas that offer equipment rental, ski instruction, food, areas to take a break—and heated bathrooms. The staff at a ski area will help you get started and suggest trails for your ability. And many ski resorts organize group tours with highlights like the Just Desserts Eat & Ski at the Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area in Minnesota. Enchanted Forest sets out homemade desserts (e.g., 18 Layer Chocolate Cinnamon Torte, Tequila Lime Pie, Black Forest Cheesecake, Mountain Berry Cream Flan) from fine restaurants in Red River over a five kilometer course. Skiers ski out to the different sites and indulge.
Why not try it? In the words of the Cross Country Ski Areas Association: “It’s easy to learn… you can do it at whatever level you feel comfortable… it’s a great way to get out in the winter without being cold (your body generates the heat to keep you warm)… it can be social or solitary, depending on what you prefer… and it’s a wonderful way to see the beautiful sights of winter!”
7. Downhill (Alpine) Skiing
Who didn’t fall in love with Jean-Claude Killy during the Grenoble Olympics in 1968? (One of our editors had his picture taped to the inside of her high school locker until she graduated two years later.) You might think, sure, that was when twisting a knee was nothing. But downhill skiing is not just for youngsters and Olympians. There are caveats. You should be otherwise fit. (Get fit to ski, don’t ski to get fit.) Your body should be able to sustain a fall (everyone falls). Stick to gentle slopes (green or blue). Don’t begin skiing without professional instruction—start with a private lesson. And get a thumbs up from your doctor before strapping on those skis.
If you pass inspection, then look for ski clubs and programs geared towards seniors. Seniors Skiing, an online community for the 50+ skier, is a good resource for finding ski buddies and posts articles from fellow senior skiers that you may find helpful. Alpine skiing is a complex sport that places demands on the cardiorespiratory, neuromuscular, and sensorimotor systems. As well as being an exhilarating winter experience you can burn 429 calories per hour. The Powderhounds website provides comprehensive information on the best ski resorts in locations around the world including Japan, Canada, USA, Europe, New Zealand and South America. And a bonus—some offer free, or deeply discounted ski passes for seniors. Ask. Always.
8. Ice Skating
Balancing on a single-blade skate, either on a frozen pond or a well-groomed indoor rink, is so much fun, you’ll forget you’re working out. The benefits are legion. Ice skating is great for your heart and lungs, it provides an aerobic workout, improves circulation, helps you lose weight—you can burn 460 calories per hour of skating—tones and stretches your muscles, engages your abs, thighs, and calves, helps maintain balance, and improves your mental fitness. Plus, you’re moving through space instead of staying in one spot on a treadmill.
There are senior skating clubs in many areas, or you can try organizing one in your town. Find a rink near you on Findrinks.com; they may have “adults only” hours, which will keep the speeding hooligans at bay. Still think you’re too old? There are women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who are competing in figure skating competitions. (Watch this video).
Whether you have been skating all your life or are taking to the ice for the first time, consider wearing hip, knee, elbow, and wrist pads or guards to protect your joints, and a helmet to prevent head injuries. Dorothy Hamill haircut not required.
When we found the website Grays on Trays, we knew we had found kindred spirits. As a self-described Wall Street Journal reader posted on the site:
I can do more with the board than I was ever able to do with skis and with less probability of leg injuries. Besides, it’s pretty “cool” when my boomer buddy and I say to the teens sitting next to us on the lift that our combined age exceeds 120 years.
Snowboarding is a great workout and burns 485 calories per hour. Like other winter sports—or sports in general—the proper equipment will help you ride safely, with confidence. Explore more on Grays on Trays. In their words, snowboarding “is a sport that’s too fun to leave to the kids.”
Get motivated: Cold weather exercise has benefits you don’t get when it’s warm.
The American Heart Association points out some of the distinct advantages of outdoor exercise in cold weather.
- There’s no heat and humidity to contend with so you might actually exercise longer.
- You’ll get some exposure to sunlight—easy to miss when buried under a blanket inside. Light can improve your mood and help you get some vitamin D.
- A few minutes of outdoor exercise a day can boost your immunity during cold and flu season.
So get up off the couch. Open the door. Step out into the light.
Remember to take steps like these from the Mayo Clinic to keep yourself safe. When participating in any sport or exercise program, including those profiled here, remember there is always the possibility of physical injury. Practice caution and safety. Avalanches, frostbite, and ice pose serious threats. Dress appropriately and be aware of weather conditions. Check with your doctor before trying any new sport.