5 Best Winter Sports to Try

From the WebMD Archives

Forget hibernating.

As the cold weather sets in each year, we tend to hunker down, turn on the TV, and tuck in for the season. But why not get outside and take part in some wintry fun?

These five cold-weather sports provide great exercise. Along with getting you some much-needed fresh air during the winter, they can help you build muscle mass, endurance, and balance.

Cross-Country Skiing

"For building endurance, [cross-country skiing] is one of the best sports you can do," says Miami neurologist Stephen Olvey, MD. It also burns more calories than almost any other activity.

Cross-country skiing is an aerobic sport. That means you move nonstop for an extended period of time while your heart pumps oxygen to your muscles, providing them with energy. "It is about grinding it out over the long haul with no help from gravity," Olvey says.

The muscles strengthened while you cross-country ski vary with your skiing style. But they typically include the thigh muscles, gluteus maximus (bottom), gastrocnemius (calves), and biceps and triceps (front and back of the upper arm).

A 150-pound person burns about 500 to 640 calories per hour while cross-country skiing, depending on the effort level. Here are Olvey's tips for getting started:

•Don't overdo it. Be conservative in how long you plan to ski.

•Prepare yourself ahead of time by using an elliptical trainer to prevent muscle strain.

•Bring fluids and snacks, especially if you're heading to a remote area.

•Wear layers of clothing that keep you warm and allow for easy movement.

•Be safe. Let someone know where you will be and when you expect to return. "It wouldn’t take long to become hypothermic," Olvey says.

Downhill Skiing

In contrast to cross-country skiing, downhill skiing takes shorter bursts of energy. Most ski runs last about 2 to 3 minutes, Olvey says.

The muscle groups used in downhill skiing are the "prime movers," including the hamstrings, quadriceps (thigh), and calf, hip, and foot muscles. To a lesser degree, you'll also use your abdominal muscles for control and strengthen your arms by using poles.

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Downhill skiing is a power sport that improves balance, flexibility, agility, and leg and core strength, Olvey says. Snow skiing also doesn’t stress the back muscles like water skiing does.

Someone weighing 150 pounds burns about 360 to 570 calories per hour while downhill skiing.

Olvey advises beginners to avoid altitudes that are too high because of the possibility of altitude sickness. Most resorts don’t allow people above about 11,000 feet. It's best to go up gradually and get acclimated. Signs of altitude sickness include a headache, muscle aches, inappropriate shortness of breath, and inability to reason normally.

Olvey also urges people to watch out for fatigue. A large percentage of injuries happen later in the day when someone goes for that "one last run" and ends up breaking an ankle. And make sure you drink enough fluids even though it is cold and you may not feel thirsty.

Snowboarding

Snowboarding uses the calf muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps to guide the board; ankle and foot muscles for steering; and abdominal muscles for balance. It also burns about 480 calories per hour for someone weighing 150 pounds.

Jonathan Chang, MD, of Pacific Orthopaedic Associates in Alhambra, CA, says another key perk of snowboarding, and many other sports, is that "the thrill of shredding the powder is good for your mental health."

Recent studies, Chang says, indicate people's mood and anxiety level improve when they exercise outdoors.

Chang says many snowboarders get good cardiovascular benefits and calorie burning from the extended exercise that comes from getting their money's worth from the lift ticket. But for safety's sake, be sure you don't push past the limits of your energy and ability.

Here are Chang's tips for recreational snowboarding:

  • Pick terrain that's appropriate for your skill level.
  • To burn more calories and get a better workout, seek out a more challenging or steeper route -- but only if you have the skills to handle it.
  • Be sure to gear up properly: Wear a helmet and wrist and elbow guards.
  • Don’t get in over your head. If you're a beginner, Chang recommends taking lessons instead of "pointing downhill and figuring it out."

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Ice Skating

Orthopedic surgeon Angela Smith, isn't just a fan of ice skating. She's also the former chairwoman of the U.S. Figure Skating Sports Medicine Committee and continues to win medals in the U.S. Figure Skating National Showcase.

"I think [ice skating] truly addresses all components of fitness at any level," she says. "It can be done across a lifetime and can be done individually or as a group sport. All those things [together] make it a pretty unique sport in my mind."

Ice skating is a low-impact exercise -- unless you're doing a lot of jumps -- that's good for building lower-body muscles including the hips, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. Performing jumps can build bone mass, Smith adds.

Skating also boosts balance, flexibility, quickness, and agility. Different kinds of skaters develop different muscles. Speed skaters get larger thighs; men who lift a partner have stronger upper bodies; and people who do lots of jumps are less muscular in the upper body, Smith says.

Another benefit, Smith says, is you can burn calories even as a beginner. If you're a new skater, you may use a lot of energy just getting around a rink a few times. As it becomes easier, you can skate longer and continue to build strength and endurance.

Smith’s tip for new skaters is to know that skates run about a size below street shoes. Many people don’t know this and never get past the pain. "There is no such thing as weak ankles," she says. "The shoes just don’t fit right."

Ice Hockey

If you like group activities, ice hockey may be the perfect winter sport.

Michael Bracko, director of the Institute for Hockey Research, says, "It’s fun in the dressing room before getting on the ice, and it’s usually an absolute riot after the game. Everyone is having fun and making jokes and making fun of each other."

Aside from the camaraderie, the sport exercises the same groups of muscles as other types of ice skating do. That includes the lower body and abdominals, which maintain balance, and the upper body, which is used to move the hockey stick.

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Bracko says most players spend a minute to one-and-a-half minutes on the ice, then rest on the side for 2 to 4 minutes. While playing, a person’s heart rate can get as high as 190, he says, and when off the ice, the body is burning calories to recover.

To get the best return from playing hockey, Bracko recommends playing one league game a week and also playing a couple of pickup games two more times a week.

Bracko notes that people with a known heart problem or high blood pressure should wear a heart rate monitor so they know if they need to slow down during a game. They should also check with their doctor before signing up for ice hockey.

And, as with other sports, it's important to get plenty of fluids.

"Without question, make sure to stay well hydrated, and do so before playing," Bracko says. "Don’t wait until after the game to get hydrated, and don’t use beer as post [hockey] hydration." Alcohol promotes fluid loss.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Kimball Johnson, MD on November 22, 2012

Sources

SOURCES:

Stephen Olvey, MD, associate professor of clinical neurology and neurosurgery, University of Miami Health System ; director, Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami.

Montana State University-Bozeman: "Muscles used in cross-country skiing."

U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association: "Muscles Involved in Alpine Skiing."

Jonathan Chang, MD, Pacific Orthopaedic Associates, Alhambra, CA; clinical associate professor of orthopedic surgery, University of Southern California.

WinterFeelsGood.com.

SnowSports Industries America: "Facts About Snowboarding."

Angela Smith, MD, orthopedic surgeon, Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children, Wilmington, DE.

Michael Bracko, EdD, sports physiologist; director, Institute for Hockey Research, Calgary, Canada.

Ainsworth, B. "The Compendium of Physical Activities Tracking Guide," Prevention Research Center, Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina, 2002.

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