A busy day at Sugarloaf ski resort in Carrabassett Valley. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

At the start of a new year, people often make resolutions to establish healthier habits. But that needn’t mean spending the next few months on a treadmill. The outdoor activities that Maine winters afford can provide the requisite workout with the added benefits of fresh air and fun.

To assess the physical and mental benefits of various winter sports, we talked to health and fitness experts; we also asked them about injuries to avoid and how to get started.

Portland ice skating coach Heather Wright said her students in their 60s and 70s say skating outside keeps their minds as well as their bodies young.

Jen Deraspe, founder of the outdoor retreat Nurture Through Nature, said the scenery in the woods and mountains in winter stimulates the imagination and improves emotional, mental and physical health. “How many people in our country are on pills because they struggle with depression?” Deraspe said. “I’m a big believer that being in nature is another way to help.”

Not just the words of a feel-good wildlife lover, it turns out. The “winter blues” are a common medical condition.

“It is absolutely a real thing. It is called seasonal affective disorder. It is similar to a form of depression,” said Dr. Krystian Bigosinski, a physician who specializes in sports medicine at Maine Medical Center. “People get angry, irritated. They feel low-energy, grumpy. Any exercise would be helpful. There is research to show being outside in winter helps. Getting outside in the daylight would be a good thing. But there’s a social effect of that, too. People stay inside, they’re isolated. They don’t socialize.”

So with that, here’s our winter activity guide to help you embrace a healthier outdoors lifestyle – even in the cold, dark and icier months. Calories burned are based on estimates by online calculators for a 160-pound person, but will vary based on terrain and level of exertion.

ALPINE SKIING/ SNOWBOARDING

Calories burned: 400 per hour

Physical benefits: Think of squats in the gym, says Todd Johnson, an Alpine coach at Carrabassett Valley Academy; that’s how snowboarding works your legs, back, core and feet muscles. Add in the fun factor, and it cranks up that workout. “When you go to the gym, you can only do so many lunges. But on the mountain, it’s so fun, your mind overlooks the leg pain,” Johnson said. He compares the leg power used in downhill skiing to the energy used by a dolphin repeatedly diving out of the water. The faster you ski, the more power bursts from your lower body are needed to carve the snow and propel you out of each turn. The more you do it, the stronger your legs get.

Other rewards: Improved coordination and bravado. And when you love Alpine sports, snowstorms make you happy.

Common injuries: Improved technology in equipment – including helmets – has decreased injuries in Alpine sports, Johnson said. That said, a crash in the trees still can result in a broken ankle, leg, arm or back. And helmets don’t eliminate the possibility of a concussion after a fall. Bigosinski sees skiers coming off the slopes with all kinds of fractures, from legs to wrists.

Get started: Ski Maine lists 16 downhill ski areas in Maine, from big resorts like Sunday River and Sugarloaf to smaller areas like the Camden Snow Bowl and Lost Valley in Auburn. The price of lift tickets ranges widely – from $5 (the Powderhouse Hill rope tow in South Berwick) to $109 at Sunday River. Rentals run from $15 to $59 for adults.

Pro tip: The Alpine mantra “go with the flow,” meaning to keep moving when skiing on a busy trail, is posted at ski slopes worldwide to help avoid collisions, but can be applied to so many aspects of life.

Christopher Rumery, 10, of Gorham skates at The Rink at Thompson’s Point in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

ICE SKATING

Calories burned: 450 to 650 per hour

Physical benefits: What doesn’t skating help? Wright, a skating coach of 20 years, said this full-body workout engages every part of your body – including your brain. Holding up your arms requires arm strength; moving and balancing works your core and leg muscles. Wright’s tip: the stronger your stomach muscles, the better your balance. And the fast pace of figure skating and ice hockey is good for the ticker. “There is a lot of mixed high cardio and low cardio. That builds a strong heart,” she said.

Other rewards: Greatly improved balance. Skating also sharpens your focus and concentration. And, Wright promises, you’ll feel more refreshed and relaxed when you step off the ice.

Common injuries: Sprains and breaks in ankles and knees, Wright said. And concussions. So be sure to wear a thick, well-padded hat, or two.

Get started: Portland has four public outdoor skating rinks, all listed on the city website. There are no skate rentals, but also no fee. Some other communities that offer outdoor rinks include Scarborough, Biddeford and Yarmouth – all with no fee and no skate rentals. The Yarmouth rink invites you to bring your own wood for the fire pit. The Rink at Thompson Point has rentals ($3) and charges a fee ($5-$7).

Pro tip: It helps to develop a comfort level with falling. “That’s the first thing we teach new skaters – how to fall,” Wright said. Falling with knees bent, slowly moving onto your hip is safest, she said.

A skier passes a stand of trees at Twin Brook Recreation Area in Cumberland last month. Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

NORDIC SKIING

Calories: 675 per hour

Physical benefits: Hands down, this is the best cardiovascular workout of all the winter sports listed here. And those Nordic Trek commercials don’t lie. Cross-country skiing is an all-body workout. Whether you skate ski (which is similar to ice skating, pushing your feet to the side) or try the classic style (which is more like running, with your legs kept parallel), you engage your arms, core, back and legs – and even your face muscles, when you smile.

Other rewards: Boosts your mental and emotional well-being because you’re forced to focus on the physical work, the trail and the natural world around you. No time to hold that cell phone up to your face. Do it before work, recommends Pineland Farms Recreational Director Matt Sabasteanski, and Nordic skiing can improve focus, creative power and attitude. He’s seen the transformation at the Nordic center in the skiers who ski before dawn.

Common injuries: Bagosinksi said over-use injuries, like tendinitis, often occur. South Portland Trainer Chris Pribish recommends warming up – or taking it slow at the beginning, before trying to push yourself. Pribish said Nordic skiers need greater mobility, which can be achieved by stretching, than Alpine skiers, or they risk straining the lower back, hips or calves.

Get started: Many farms around Greater Portland offer trail passes, such as Harris Farm in Dayton, Five Fields Farm in Bridgton and Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. Both trail passes and rentals in Maine range from $12 to $25.

Pro tip: In the winter, when the days are shorter, try skiing before or after sunrise with a head lamp. But check those batteries.

John Nutting of Leeds carries his snowshoes to the Titcomb Mountain Nordic venue in Farmington. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

SNOWSHOEING

Calories burned: 600 to 1,000 per hour

Physical benefits: Gets the heart rate up. Works the legs and hips.

Other rewards: Since you’re moving slowly through the woods, you’ve a decent chance of seeing wildlife. ”It gives you a whole new perspective,” Sabasteanski said. “You shed stress. It clears everything out. I think it makes you more creative.”

Common injuries: In the bitter cold, frostbite and frost nip are a danger, warns Jeanne Christie, a certified forest therapy guide. Don’t be deterred, just layer up. Keep hands and feet warm. Also layer over ankles and wrists with gaters and longer gloves, Christie suggests. Hypothermia can be a danger. Stay on marked trails to avoid getting lost and trapped in the woods longer than you intend.

Get started: Not all Nordic centers in Maine have snowshoe trails. Some that do are Pineland Farms, Quarry Road and Sugarloaf. The cost of trail passes ranges from $6 to $22; rentals run from $10 to $22. At Quarry Road in Waterville, snowshoes are free to use, as are the trails.

Pro tip: Don’t lose a snowshoe in 4 feet of powder and sink up to your sternum. And try making it a full-body workout by adding ski poles. Sabasteanski said that way, you’ll engage the core, shoulders, biceps and triceps. Plus, you will avoid falling and that embarrassing face plant.

Ivan Lazure shovels snow from his driveway in Lewiston on Monday. “I will be using the snow blower tomorrow,” Lazure said about the snow that was expected to fall overnight into Tuesday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

SNOW SHOVELING

Calories: 500 per hour

Physical benefits: Puts you outside in the clean air. Gets the heart rate up. Works your arms and – if done right – your legs (that means squatting with your back straight and using your legs to lift the load).

Other rewards: Saves money on the plow guy.

Common injuries: Where to start? Athletic trainer Chris Pribish sees a lot of shoveling-related injuries, including sprains and strains in the back, arms and neck, rotator cuff tears and herniated discs. He said heart attacks are also a danger for older shovelers.

Get started: Your own front stoop – then help your neighbor and get a better workout at the same time.

Pro tip: Lift smaller loads to avoid strain on your neck and back.


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