Snow Play: The Health Benefits Of Winter Sports
It’s no revelation that California fosters a reputation for sunshine, summer and beaches. For many here in northern California, however, that ubiquitous imagery is replaced half the year with dreams of soft white powder and the crisp sound of edges slicing through snow. With our close proximity to the Lake Tahoe Basin, northern California has emerged as a haven for winter sports, and the multitude of available activities leaves little room for excuses to hibernate.
Winter sports build muscle mass, endurance and balance, and are one of the few activities one can participate in from youth to old age, making it accessible for the entire family. Engaging in a winter sport also burns more calories than their warm weather equivalent, since it takes more energy for the body to maintain homeostasis in a colder environment.
But it’s not just about maintaining your beach bod; the psychological benefits are amazing as well. When you engage in a winter sport, endorphins and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream, elevating the mood and providing an overall sense of well-being and contentment. Plus, you’re outdoors in the fresh air: There’s a reason it’s called cabin fever.
Fueling a growing popularity is the formidable winter sports retail industry, whose vast improvements in equipment and affordability have allowed for mass participation in a previously exclusive culture. Winter sports retail brought in $3.5 billion ($1.3 billion in apparel, $1.1 billion in accessories, and $847 million in equipment sales) last year, according to Kelly Davis, SnowSports Industry America’s director of research. She also adds that participants in winter sports burned more than 332 billion calories in America last season—enough to offset 475 million cheeseburgers or 2.2 million beers. In a season typically fraught with calorie-laden food and drink, that’s what we call incentive!
This low-impact activity may not seem much like a sport, but anyone who has participated in snowshoeing can testify to the exertion it demands. The activity consists of trekking through deep powder with 8” x 22” “boats” attached to your feet. The apparatuses work by distributing a person’s weight over a larger surface area so that the person’s foot does not sink completely into the snow, a quality called flotation.
Ray Browning, Ph.D., of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado’s Health Science Center and Vail Mountain Man champion, told snowshoes.com: “Snowshoeing is the best bang-for-your-buck, fat-burning workout in winter…It’s an exceptional way to achieve cardiovascular fitness, expend energy and reduce your chance of heart disease; plus it’s low cost, easily mastered and fun.” Snowshoeing is easy to learn, and in appropriate conditions, is a relatively safe and inexpensive recreational activity. And if you’re wondering where you might find snowshoes, local REI stores in Roseville and Folsom offer equipment for either rent or purchase. For more information and to find trails available in our area, visit trails.com.
Also known as alpine skiing, downhill skiing is by far the most popular snow sport. Of the 6.9 percent of the total U.S. population over 6 years old who participates in at least one snow sport, 44 percent chose to downhill ski in 2012. Skiing is one of the most calorie-intense sports. Depending on body weight, the type and intensity, skiing can burn more than 1,000 calories per hour. Alpine skiing is considered a “power sport,” using short bursts of energy and major muscles such as the hamstrings, quads, calves, hips, and to a lesser degree, the abdominal and arms.
In the midst of a run, a skier is crouched in a squat position—turning, jumping and stabilizing, and engaging muscles for the duration of the trail. Advanced skiers are more likely to tackle moguled terrain, increasing the calorie expenditure and muscle engagement. Skiing is intense, requiring a lot of energy and effort, which is why it’s a great sport choice for those who are looking to shed a few pounds and trim up.
There are 37 ski resorts in northern California alone to chose from, with the highest concentration (and the highest rated) ones located in the Lake Tahoe area. Many of these offer extremely affordable single day and package options for those on a budget. For deals on lift tickets and packages for the whole family, visit skilaketahoe.com.
In terms of endurance building, cross-country skiing, or Nordic skiing, is one of the best sports a person can do. Unlike downhill skiing in which one engages in activity for short bursts, in cross-country skiing one moves nonstop for an extended period of time. Think of the difference between the two like interval training versus cardio, and you’ll start to get the idea. With a little help from gravity, a cross-country skier’s heart is required to continuously pump oxygen to his muscles through his blood vessels, developing lung capacity.
If you’re a runner, cyclist or triathlete, cross-country skiing is a great off-season sport alternative to maintain your body condition and lung function. While the exact muscles worked vary with skiing style, they typically include the thighs, glutes and calves, while the biceps and triceps are engaged for poling. If your interest is piqued, you’re in luck. Lake Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl Resort recently signed an agreement to operate neighboring Royal Gorge XC, which the Truckee Donner Land Trust acquired this past summer. America’s largest cross-country resort, Royal Gorge consists of 200 kilometers of trails and approximately 6,000 acres of terrain.
Sugar Bowl Resort and Royal Gorge are already connected by an “interconnect trail” that allows skiers to go back and forth between the two, and plans are in the works to further enhance the connection with two additional beginner-friendly routes and a $500,000 renovation for the iconic resort. Sugar Bowl also offers a season pass that allows holders to downhill ski at Sugar Bowl and cross-country ski at Royal Gorge for one rate. For more details, visit sugarbowl.com.
Once considered a rogue sport on the slopes, snowboarding has continued to ascend as the fastest growing snow sport. In fact, snowboardinghelp.com, an online guide to snowboarding by Jakob Jelling, estimates that 80 percent of snow sport novices choose snowboarding for their entry into winter activities. And they’re no slackers. The calories you burn while snowboarding are comparable to what you might burn with cross-country skiing, downhill skiing or snowshoeing.
Depending on the variables (exertion, body weight), snowboarding can burn 250 to 630 calories per hour for a 110-200 pound adult. Competitive or rigorous snowboarding can burn 700 to 1,260 calories per hour for a 110-200 pound adult. For adults in the same weight range, 30 minutes of recreational snowboarding would burn 125 to 315 calories per hour, and 30 minutes of competitive or rigorous snowboarding would burn 350 to 630 calories. Snowboarding engages the core as you balance, as well as calf muscles, quadriceps and hamstrings as you rock back and forth.
The muscles in your ankles and feet will help you steer the board and even arm and shoulder muscles—used for balance and to pick yourself up when you fall—are worked. The best way to learn the sport is to (surprise!) take a lesson. Squaw Valley, one of the largest ski resorts in America and host of the 1960 Winter Olympics, has partnered with Burton and their acclaimed Learn to Ride (LTR) program for Winter 2013. As a part of the LTR program, Squaw will be offering specially designed equipment for beginner snowboarders (both kids and adults). Already a staple of Squaw’s Snowboard School, Burton’s LTR teaching methodologies help new riders to learn to make and connect their turns faster, making for a great first time experience—and a better workout. For more details, visit squaw.com.
If you’ve ever watched ice-skaters on television and spent as much time appreciating their fab physique as their moves, there’s a good reason why. Ice-skating uses a lot of small stabilizer muscles that don’t normally get a workout (hips, knees and ankles) while toning larger muscles in your legs, butt and core at the same time. The calories burned in this aerobic activity depend on your speed: A 155-pound woman skating slowly burns about 387 calories per hour.
Fast, full-out skating (for example, chasing a puck) burns 633 calories per hour. Skating outside offers a bit more of a workout than an indoor rink since you’re contending with wind and bumpier, harder ice. However, one of the best benefits of ice-skating is that it’s low-impact…unless, of course, you’re a newbie. Then your rear-end may tell a different story. In that case, it might be beneficial to take a lesson (or two!) and wear enforced skates. Gather some friends and family and head to Historic Folsom; a major re-haul of the district was recently completed and features an ice rink (through January 21) at the public plaza’s railroad turntable off Sutter Street. Besides the picturesque location, the Folsom Historic District Ice Rink offers fun events, such as party packages and theme nights. For more details, visit historicfolsom.org.
HYDRATION AND SAFETY
Dehydration is one of the biggest problems facing winter sport participants. Similar to swimming, athletes tend to forget that they are losing important fluids through sweating and normal respiration. In fact, at elevations of 6,000 feet, you exhale and perspire two times more moisture than you do at sea level. Additionally, cold weather and high altitudes tend to inhibit thirst and appetite. Add to the equation the fact that skiers and riders are notorious for consuming alcohol and caffeine—diuretics that rob the body of fluids.
When a person becomes dehydrated, the heart must work harder to pump the same amount of blood; in addition, the body can lose the ability to regulate temperature. With the added exertion of winter sports, this can potentially be a recipe for disaster. To protect yourself, make sure to wear a backpack that contains a reservoir and consume 12-16 ounces of fluid (water or sports drink) per hour. We like the Camelbak’s Powderbak, a mid-layer designed in both men and women’s sizes that integrate a hydration system into a full-zip vest. The shell utilizes core body temperature to prevent freezing.
If you’re feeling the heat in the midst of all your exertion, beware of stripping those outer layers. Exposed skin poses of a risk of sunburn or lacerations from falls. Always wear an SPF, and think about investing in some of the newer ski apparel, which is designed to wick away moisture while keeping your body heat regulated. We like The North Face Kannon jackets for both men and women, which are constructed with waterproof, breathable, seam sealed HyVent® 2.5L fabric. It also includes FlashDry™ technology, which dramatically improves wicking, dry time and breathability to keep you content over a longer period of exposure.
While staying bundled next to a cozy fire watching movies and eating popcorn all winter may sound appealing, it can lead to serious repercussions, such as depression from lack of sun exposure. Weight gain from inactivity will not only increase your derriere but can lead to a host of health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. So, get outside, try something new and have some winter fun. Your body (and mind) will thank you.