I take it pretty much for granted that most people find it harder to keep up their motivation for exercise in winter. Much less light; shorter, colder days; dry, stuffy indoor air; slippery underfoot outside.
Yet with overwhelming evidence that regular exercise—the kind that leaves you huffing and puffing a bit or that builds stronger muscles—is the best medicine for physical, mental, and emotional health, you can’t afford to slack off four or five months of the year.
If you live somewhere where snow will likely build up during at least some part of the winter, I encourage you to discover the wonders of snowshoeing, a winter activity that's been called walking on water and floating on snow.
I got snowshoes and trekking poles (aluminum poles that telescope for easy height adjustment) as a winter gift about 15 years ago.
At the time, I was running 30 miles and riding my bike 100-200 miles each week, swimming and weight training, as well as competing in summer triathlons. But a diagnosis of severe knee osteoarthritis, and the doctor’s dismissive comment that I’d have to quit running and take up another activity, brought running and competing to a halt and plunged me into a state of despair and hopelessness. The loss still stings, after more than a decade without running, with one artificial knee installed and another in the cards.
I didn't expect much from my new equipment. For years, I'd nurtured an image of myself as fast, fit, and sleek, getting faster and sleeker with each passing year. Snowshoeing seemed slow and clunky … until I experienced the magic of floating through deep snow into deep woods easily accessible from my kitchen door.
Within the space of half an hour, I pass through boggy wetland, cross ravines, glide through glades of birches and stands of stately, primeval hemlocks.
Along the way, I cross or follow the paths of white-tailed deer, coyote, fox, wild turkeys, hares, mice and squirrels, weasels, otters, fishers, occasionally a bear, a moose, or a domestic dog.
I hear the sounds of my breath, the punch of my poles into the snow, and the sounds of winter woods: the rattle of leaves still clinging to beech saplings, the cries of birds, the squeaks, creaks and groans of older trees.
Unlike frozen pavement, the snow is different underfoot each time I venture out into it. Breaking trail through fresh powder, the snow whispers soft, whuff, whuff, whuff. Across a wind-scourged open hillside, my snowshoes scrape and scratch.
To help identify wildlife tracks, the N.H. state Fish and Game Department divides the animals out and about into four categories: Bounders (otters, fishers, minks, and weasels), walkers (deer, moose, bobcats, coyotes), gallopers (beavers, porcupines, skunks, raccoons), and waddlers (mice, squirrels, hares, and turkeys).
Although I’ve never managed a gallop on snowshoes, I walk, stride, shuffle, plod, waddle, and sometimes even bound. When the snow is fresh, cold, fluffy, and not too deep, I definitely float.
Once a week or so, I want a hard, aerobic workout. I pick a stretch of steep, open hillside, warm up for around 10 minutes, then dash up my hill as fast as I can, saunter down slowly, and dash up again. Five or six repetitions of the hill and a slow walk back to my house complete the workout.
Snowshoes originated in central Asia somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago among the ancestors of today's native American and Eskimo peoples. They manufactured the first rough shoes of twigs and rawhide. Anthropologists theorize the early snowshoe designers took their cues from animals such as the snowshoe hare.
Modern snowshoes are lightweight, with bindings that make snapping in and out a cinch. The double-clawed toe articulates with every flex of the forefoot. One set of claws prevents you from sliding backwards while climbing uphill, the other from sliding forward during steep descents.
The springy poles take a lot of the stress off weak backs, hips, knees, and ankles. They provide work for upper-body muscles, and can increase the aerobic intensity (and calorie burn) of your workout. (Last summer, I discovered the joy of “Nordic walking,” outfitting the poles with rubber tips and using them to walk over bare ground.)
I’d advise investing in high-quality snowshoes and poles. With care, they should last a lifetime.
You don’t have to venture out into deep woods to enjoy snowshoeing. Try snowmobile or cross-country skiing trails, public golf courses, logging roads, open fields, snow-covered ponds, unplowed dirt roads. Any safe place where the snow piles up will do.
Wisconsin conservation warden Patrick J. Lisi coins the term “floating on snow,” and gives tips on back-country snowshoeing.