To get fit, go where there's snow
Research shows that competitive cross-country skiers have the highest aerobic capacity of all sports, experts say.
Fitness benefits aren't limited to elite athletes, said Steven Gaskill, a fitness and physiology professor at the University of Montana. He's also the author of "Fitness and Health," and "Fitness Cross Country Skiing."
"It's good for you," he said.
You can explore the outdoors, soak up fresh air and get in a great workout. Plus, enjoying the quiet and beauty of the winter wilderness is a wonderful way to spend a day.
"If its purposeful or meaningful, it's much better than going to a gym," Gaskill said.
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing both provide excellent, family-friendly ways to increase the heart rate while enjoying the outdoors.
Alpine sports, including downhill skiing and snowboarding, also have fitness benefits. Short downhill runs help build and strengthen muscles.
All the sports are easy to access in the Pacific Northwest. Snowfall already has blanketed the passes.
The mix of winter activities offers opportunities to improve muscular and cardiovascular systems, Gaskill said.
"Do everything you can on snow, whenever you can," he said.
Andy Boos, known as Alpine Andy, has been leading winter trips with Everett Parks and Recreation since 1995.
"We've seen big growth in snowshoeing popularity," Boos said.
This year, he'll lead about 50 outings.
"The nice thing about it, it's good for any age," Boos said. "You don't have to be a real top-notch athlete to enjoy it."
Brooke de Lench loves snowshoeing as a family activity. She's the founder of MomsTeam.com, a website that encourages parents to engage in sports with their children.
"There's nothing like having a family that plays together," de Lench said.
When snowshoeing with kids, it's easy to follow animal tracks and explore the outdoors. The natural environment provides a giant classroom.
"At the same time, it's exercise," she said. "There's a lot of different senses that you're bringing in."
Boos recommends beginners in either snowshoeing or cross-country skiing start at a winter resort like Stevens Pass or The Summit at Snoqualmie.
From there, people can explore many terrific trails in the Cascades, the Olympic Mountains or on the flanks of Mount Rainier.
The Mountaineers also offers classes in snowshoeing and other winter outdoor activities.
Dan Nelson, who wrote "Snowshoe Routes: Washington," a guidebook for snowshoers, recommends trails at Mount Rainier and Skyline Ridge on the north side of Stevens Pass.
"Great views, great snow and easy parking," he said.
Like snowshoers, cross-country skiers may want to start at a resort, where they can take lessons and enjoy groomed trails.
"Cross-country skiing is one of these great sports you can do and not beat yourself up," Gaskill said.
The fluid motion of moving both arms and legs increases the heart rate. The glide of the skis transfers your body's energy to motion without pounding pavement like running.
It's easy once you learn to kick and glide.
"You can do that at any intensity," Gaskill said.
Many people graduate from parallel track cross-country skiing to skate skiing, he said.
That's where shorter skis are used and you push the skis like an ice skater on top of the snow.
"Ski-skating is a more skilled sport," he said. It can give a person the feeling that they're flying through the woods, he said.
That freedom is what helps inspire so many people to get fit in the winter wilderness.
Gaskill couldn't talk for long the other day. He was on his way to hit the snow.
If you're looking for a way to make good on a New Year's resolution, head to where the snow falls and strap on a pair of snowshoes or skis.
When it comes to getting fit, "any of the snow sports are good," Gaskill said.
Enjoy winter sports
Several snowshoeing and cross-country ski trips are offered through Everett Parks & Recreation. Find out more at www.everettwa.org.
The Mountaineers also offers several classes in winter activities. Find out more at www.everettmountaineers.org.
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