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It’s winter here in the northern hemisphere, and for many of us that means colder weather, snow on the ground, and darker, shorter days. All of that added together can often make us want to hit the couch with a cup of coffee and a good book until spring rolls around. Or at least shift all of our workouts, exercise programs, and sporting events to an indoor setting. I don’t blame you. I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta where winter lasts eight months of the year and it regularly gets below -22 degrees Fahrenheit.
But there are many great outdoor activities available to us at this time of year—and many of them are only available at this time of year. I think it is a shame to waste them!
I’m here to tell you that despite the snow, the cold, and the lack of sunlight, you can still go outside and get a great workout and have some fun while you are at it.
I know what you are thinking though: “I need to get a good workout and there are only so many hours in the day. I’m just going to hit the gym on the way home from work and call it good.” Well, I am here to tell you that despite the snow, the cold, and the potential lack of sunlight, you can still go outside and get a great workout and have some fun while you’re at it.
To that end, here is a list of some regular outdoor winter activities along with some small alterations that you can make if you want more of a workout.
11+ Winter Workouts to Try Outside
- Winter Hiking
- Cross-Country Skiing
- Polar Plunge
- Building a Snowman
- Shoveling the Walk
- Skiing or Snowboarding
- Ice Hockey
- Ice Skating
- Snowball Fight
Let’s dive deeper into each winter workout.
1. Winter Hiking
Find a trail, a hill, or a mountain, strap on your hiking boots, and away you go. Winter hiking may be hard enough on its own, depending on how much snow there is where you live, but if hoofing it along some trails in the nearest wilderness you have isn’t enough of a challenge, you can try putting something heavy in your backpack like a few books, a dumbbell, or a rock.
If you have a weighted vest, or wrist and ankle weights, this is the perfect time to bust those out. Piggybacking a child or a small adult can also turn an uphill hike into a gruelling workout if you are so inclined (pun intended).
Muscles used: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Calves, Gluteals, Abs, Hip Adductors, and Abductors.
Sure, you look like you are wearing tennis rackets on your feet but this is a time-tested and science-backed technique to traverse the snowy trails. If you haven’t snowshoed since you were a child, you may want to spend an hour or so getting used to them before you try anything too wild, but if you are already an adept snowshoe aficionado, one of the most exhilarating things I have done is descending a reasonably steep hill at near breakneck speeds in snowshoes.
The trick is to get yourself into a flow state. Don’t think; just keep your feet moving and never second guess your next footfall. If you hesitate, that is when you will end up eating snow. The good news is, if there is a layer of fresh powder, that will cushion your fall.
Muscles used: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Hip Adductors and Abductors, and Hip Flexors. With poles: Pectorals and Latissimi Dorsi.
3. Cross-Country Skiing
For those adrenaline junkies out there, cross-country doesn’t really seem like skiing at all but if you can turn that need-for-speed off for a few minutes, you will see this is a lovely and challenging way to enjoy the great outdoors.
In my opinion, the best heartrate-raising cross-country skiing happens when you are breaking the trail. Get out front of the group, get off the trodden path, and break trail for yourself and your friends. The deeper the snow, the better the burn. Now that can turn a lazy ski afternoon into a true workout.
Muscles used: Core, Hamstrings, Quadriceps, Gluteals, Leg Abductors and Adductors, Pectorals, Triceps, Rhomboids, Rear Deltoids, Biceps, and Gastrocnemius.
4. Polar Plunge
Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. You find a natural body of water—a lake, river, stream or creek—and chop through the ice (if necessary), then strip down to your skivvies and jump in! Is there any better way to ring in the New Year?
After all my talk about cold exposure being so good for you, why not take the plunge? For added benefit, try staying in a little longer than you are “comfortable” with. Get a good shiver going before you run back to your warm, dry clothes and then, instead of huddling around a fire or an electric heater to warm up, try some burpees or jumping jacks and use your own thermogenesis to warm you up!
Muscles used: Willpower, Grit, and Gumption.
Get in touch with your 10-year-old self and hit the slopes on your butt. You can think of it like doing hill repeats but with a more exhilarating descent.
Take it to the next level by making the other adults on the hill look like lazy chumps (sipping their Starbucks and staring at their phones) by running up the hill each time instead of the traditional trudge. For bonus points, invite some kids to add some weight to your toboggan by giving them a ride up the hill. Depending on the size of the kids and the size of the hill, this could be quite the workout!
Muscles used: Vastus group of the Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals, Hip Flexors, and Soleus.
6. Building a Snowman
Ok. If you have rolled a 2-foot-high snowman butt around your yard before, you know how much of a workout that can be. How about using the snow from your neighbour’s yard too and turn that into a 4-foot-high snowman bottom? Or head to the local playground or school ground to use their snow as well. We’re talking some record-breaking snowman assembly here. And I can’t imagine anyone getting upset at you for stealing their snow. I mean, it’ll save them having to shovel it eventually, right?
Muscles used: Abdominals, Erectors, Multifidi, Rotares, Gluteals, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Calves, Hip Adductors and Abductors, Upper Back, and Chest.
7. Shoveling the Walk
And speaking of shovelling, this is a great wintertime workout that also helps out the neighbourhood. Most cities have bylaws that insist snow gets cleared within 48 hours of a snowfall, so why wait? Clear the walks and burn some calories.
Make sure you keep the workload even by changing hands on the shovel every few minutes. If you aren’t already an ambidextrous shoveler, you will be soon.
Shovelling your own walk can be made harder by waiting longer before you engage in the “throw” part of the shovel activity. Also you can make sure you keep the workload even by changing hands on the shovel every few minutes. If you aren’t already an ambidextrous shoveler, you will be soon.
The real benefits kick in when you do more than just your own sidewalk. Why not make everyone’s day by getting out there early and clearing as many sidewalks and driveways as you can before you make yourself late for work? And if you aren’t putting yourself in danger of frostbite or hypothermia, try incorporating some aspects of a “shiver walk” by going out in shorts and a t-shirt along with a good pair of winter gloves, boots, and a hat so you don’t freeze your extremities.
Muscles used: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals, Biceps, Triceps, and pretty much all of the trunk/core, especially the external obliques and multifidus.
8. Skiing or Snowboarding
Is there any better way to enjoy the winter season than careening, at breakneck speeds, down a mountain? Ok, for you it might be all about the après-ski beverages in the chalet but for many of us, swishing down the slopes is the closest we get to flying!
Need to beef it up? Well, this could get dangerous fast, so let’s not get carried away adding in weighted vests or blindfolds. Challenging yourself with a harder-than-usual run is a great way to start the day but as your legs get tired, and the sun starts to set, there is nothing wrong with taking it easy and dialing it back from black diamond to blue square or green circle. Getting a good workout tomorrow is easier if you aren’t in a cast from hip to ankle. Right?
Muscles used: Plantar Flexors and Dorsiflexors, Transverse Abdominal, Multifidus, External Obliques, Rectus Abdominus, Anterior Compartment, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, and Gluteals.
9. Ice Hockey
Hitting the rink, indoor or out, with your friends (or some local rink rats) is a great way to get a workout and have some fun at the same time. Who knows, your competitive side may just come out and lead to some unintended victories as well.
If simply skating hard and deking out your friends isn’t enough, you can challenge yourself by being both offense and defense (if it is a true game of shinny and no one is really playing a position). You can also get more of a workout by extending your shifts—just don’t be “that hog” who never lets their teammates have a turn. The best way to make a game of ice hockey more of a challenge and a better workout is to play with (or against) people who are clearly better than you. Nothing makes you step up your game like getting scored on repeatedly.
Muscles used: Adductors Brevis, Longus, Magnus and Pectineus, Obliques, Rectus Abdominis, Erector Spinae, Hamstrings, Quadriceps, Gluteals, and Hip Flexors.
10. Ice Skating
You don’t have to have a stick in your hands and a puck on the ice to enjoy putting on the old skates and letting loose your inner Brian Boitano.
We’ve talked a lot so far about adding weight to our body or to something we are pulling, so this time let’s talk intensity. The best way to increase your VO2 Max is by doing eight to twelve, 600m to 800m all-out speed or power skating efforts. For VO2 max workouts, the work-to-recovery ratio should be in the range of 1:1 to 2:1. If your recoveries are too short then your subsequent efforts will end up being slower than optimal or you will need to cut the workout short. So grab your measuring tape (or just eyeball it) and a stopwatch and see if you can give Boitano a run for his money.
Muscles used: Soleus and Gastocnemius, Anterior Shin (tibialis anterior), Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals, Abdominals, and Extensors.
11. Snowball Fight
How could I have a list of winter activities and not include having a snowball fight?
How could I have a list of winter activities and not include having a snowball fight? Seriously? Those of us who grew up in a snowy locale have been having these our entire lives. Is there anything more natural than grabbing a handful of snow and chucking it at your sibling or best friend? I don’t think so.
To take a regular snowball fight to the next level, move it out into a wide open field where you have nothing to hide behind but your own cat-like reflexes. Depending on how accurate your opponent is, this can keep you dancing and dodging until you collapse.
There is also some good science around the benefits of using your non-dominant hand for activities like this. The studies show that when you use your dominant hand, only one hemisphere of the brain is active but when you use your non-dominant hand, both hemispheres are activated. They speculate that doing this repeatedly could result in you actually thinking differently and becoming more creative.
Muscles used: Visual Cortex, Nervous System, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Hip Adductors, Hip Abductors, Gluteals, Int./Ext., Obliques, Rectus Abdominis, Erector Spinae, Deltoids, Pectoralis Major, Latissimus Dorsi, Triceps, and Biceps.
There you have it! Whether you feel like you are battling Seasonal Affective Disorder or you are just getting a case of the winter blahs, I bet it’s at least partially a result of not getting outside and enjoying yourself. Don’t let the length of winter force you inside with the windows closed!
There are so many benefits to being active outdoors. It’s a great way to boost your metabolism and burn some calories, plus the fresh air makes us feel alive again. Just make sure you dress appropriately for your climate. I’m confident you can find a way to both enjoy winter and get a good workout at the same time.