The Health Benefits of Skiing, Skating, and Playing in the Snow

There are big health benefits to skiing, snowshoeing, hiking — even just playing outdoors.

For decades, Andrea Traynor dreaded winter. Every fall, as the days grew shorter and the air crisper, she would start to feel nervous. And then, for the four months of sub-zero temperatures typical of southern Ontario, she’d be blue. “I just suffered through it because it was my normal,” says the lifestyle and travel writer who lives in Courtice, Ont. “I thought, Winter sucks; trudge on.” That is, until she found skiing.

The year she turned 40, Traynor and her family spent a weekend at Mont Tremblant, Que. While she didn’t ski — and had never been interested in learning — she didn’t want her two kids to miss out. Just because she loathed winter didn’t mean they had to. So the family suited up for lessons and, to her surprise, she loved it. In fact, she adjusted the itinerary so she could ski for the rest of the weekend. That was five years ago, and Traynor and her family have skied almost every winter weekend since. “I don’t know if it’s because of all the extra vitamin D or because skiing made me realize my body is capable of so much more than I thought it was,” says Traynor. “But having something that I love to do all winter, that I can do with my whole family — it changed everything.”

On top of winter’s usual challenges, we’re also dealing with a pandemic. And 10 months in, we have a clearer picture of its toll on our emotional well-being. Results from an ongoing national survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and research technology company Delvinia released in October revealed that women in particular are experiencing increased depression, anxiety and loneliness. “It has been really tough on people,” says Nora Johnston, director of the Centre for Active Living in Edmonton. “But those who have reported being physically active have had way lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress.” This is true of the CAMH survey results too: One of the top three activities participants cited as a way to cope was spending time outdoors.

(Related: How to Warm Up Properly Before A Winter Workout, And What To Do After)

There’s plenty of evidence that exposure to fresh air and nature is good for our physical and mental health. Being active outdoors stimulates your senses; decreases anxiety, anger and depression; and increases vitamin D levels, says Johnston. “Researchers have also found it increases memory retention, productivity and concentration, and decreases sick time and the chance of developing seasonal effective disorder,” she adds. And cold weather, specifically, ups the physical ante. With the cooler temperatures, extra layers and challenging conditions, we have to put in more work, so we burn more calories. That extra effort also builds strength, says Michael Kennedy, an exercise physiologist and associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology, sport and recreation at the University of Alberta. “The body’s fighting more, there’s more activation to keep secure footing, and that then has a positive influence on muscular strength and endurance.”

There are COVID-specific benefits too: Being active alfresco boosts the immune system and provides a safe, distanced way to connect with others, which is crucial for keeping our mental health in check right now. “There’s ample research to show that social contact provides stress-relieving benefits,” says Cheryl McCormick, a psychology professor at Brock University’s Centre for Neuroscience and Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience. “Even the few smiles and hellos you get from strangers and neighbours outside give that morale boost we’re not getting because of the isolation and distance from our loved ones.”

(Related: All the Gear You Need to Stay Active This Winter)

With physical-distancing measures in place, now’s the time to participate in outdoor activities that allow for space to be maintained, such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and skating, says Dr. Dominik Mertz, an assistant professor in the infectious diseases division at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. In fact, they’re going to help us get through the season together. “We kept emphasizing the importance of being outside throughout the summer, and I think it’s the easiest way for us to get as close to a normal level of activity as possible [this winter],” he says. “Even if it’s only for short periods because it’s cold, it will be added value for your overall health, emotionally and physically.”

Traynor is considering getting her family into a new winter sport — one that allows for ample distancing. “Now that I know my brain functions much better when I’m active in the winter, we’ve started looking for alternatives,” she says. Cross-country skiing is at the top of the list, since they already have an Ontario Parks pass, and they plan to purchase second-hand equipment. “It doesn’t have to be top-of-the-line stuff,” Traynor says. “It just has to keep us outside.”

(Related: 8 Best Physical Activities for Social Distancing)

Image Credits: Photos by Saty + Pratha, Wardrobe by Jaclyn Bonavota, Hair & Makeup by Ronnie Tremblay, Props by Kristen Lim Tung

The health benefits of cross-country skiing

While it’s low-impact thanks to the elegant gliding motion, cross-country skiing is a full-body weight-bearing workout. “You’re using your upper body, arms, legs and core,” says Nora Johnston, director of the Centre for Active Living in Edmonton. It’s great for people who have joint issues, which is one reason Wannes Luppens, executive director of Cross Country BC, calls it a “lifetime sport” — he knows people in their 90s who continue to ski regularly. The sport is attracting more Canadians this year, because it has built-in distancing. “Our club memberships across B.C. are well over 50 percent higher than they were at this time last year,” says Luppens.

The health benefits of skating

Not only is skating low-impact — like cross-country skiing, you’re gliding — but it also helps with joint flexibility and stability. “[When you’re skating], you’re moving in directions you don’t normally move when you’re walking,” says Johnston. It’s also both aerobic (gets your breathing and heart rate up over time) and anaerobic (offers opportunities for quick bursts of maximum exertion), with lots of calorie-burning potential.

(Related: The 8 Best Winter Boots For Your Feet, According to Podiatrists)

The health benefits of snowshoeing

The beauty of snowshoeing, says David Robinson, president of Snowshoe Canada, is you simply put them on and move forward. “It’s like walking or running, but you’re wearing sizable snowshoes and there’s a lot of friction against the snow,” he says. As a result, you’ll expend up to one and a half times more calories than walking and build muscular endurance as your hip flexors, quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves are activated.

The health benefits of playing in the snow

Yes, this means tobogganing, building snowpeople and forts, having snowball fights and making snow angels. Also, there’s no reason to stop playing all the games we enjoy in summer just because it’s cold. “Play Frisbee in the snow — if there’s enough snow, you can dive for it or stomp through the snow to retrieve it,” says Johnston. Depending on the activity and the effort you’re putting in, frolicking outside can be a great cardiovascular workout, but the main benefit is fun: Playtime in adulthood has essential mental health benefits and even stimulates brain function. “It can help spur imagination and bring back memories,” says Johnston, who enjoys playing fox and hens, a tag-like game that involves following tracks made in the snow, like she did as a kid.   

The health benefits of cold-weather hiking

Of all winter activities, heading out for a nature stroll or hike is the most accessible — and affordable. “Walking is an easy way to get out and be active in the wintertime,” says Johnston, who notes that proper footwear is a must on icy, snow-packed trails. “If you’re worried about slipping, add grippers to your shoes or boots and use walking poles,” she says. A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that a 50-minute walk has positive mental health impacts, but a 50-minute walk in a forest amplifies those benefits — even if you have to drive for 20 minutes to get to the trailhead. And Canadians in mountainous environments have even more reason to make tracks: Research published in 2017 in the journal PLOS One found that participants who went for a roughly three-hour mountain hike at a brisk pace derived more pleasure from it and were less tired than those who walked for the same amount of time on a treadmill.

*Check COVID-19 guidelines for all parks, rinks and Nordic centres before heading out.

Next: How to Treat the Most Common Aches and Pains Caused by Pandemic Life

Originally Published in Best Health Canada