It happens every year, usually in late October or early November, on a steel grey sky day. It’s always the sting of the wind on my cheeks that remind me that winter is coming. It reminds me how, for better or worse, winter defines our lives in Edmonton for the majority of the year. Unfortunately, it also reminds me that my excitement for winter activities is not shared by all of my fellow Edmontonians. Thus, I hope to inspire and illustrate not only the importance of maintaining your physical activity through the winter months, but also how you might embrace winter a little more as you meet your physical activity goals.
The evidence of habitual physical activity on health and wellness is well documented. We know that habitual activity adds nearly two years on average to your lifespan if you meet the Physical Activity Guidelines compared to someone who is physically inactive or sedentary (Paffenbarger R.S. et al., 1986). Although this evidence is a powerful reminder of how exercise can dramatically impact our quality of life and life expectancy, we know that the majority of Canadians are not physically active enough to achieve these benefits.
What are our challenges to being physically active in Edmonton in winter?
The main barriers to physical activity in Canadians are lack of time, lack of energy and lack of motivation (CFLRI, 1996). Winter in Edmonton impacts time because it takes longer to get where you’re going, there are less daylight hours, and it takes more energy to get out the door when the weather is freezing.
However, we often have some serious motivation issues, which can have an impact on our physical activity and exercise during winter in Edmonton. Other barriers like lack of safe places or lack of skill (CFLRI) are both accentuated in the winter due to legitimate concerns around darkness or icy sidewalks. Add all of those barriers together and the challenges of being active are overwhelming in our city.
How do we meet the recommended Physical Activity Guidelines in the winter?
First, remember that physical activity bouts as little as ten minutes are beneficial to your health. So if you only have the time or energy or motivation to walk 10 minutes at night after work – GO FOR IT!
Second, the weekly recommendations to achieve health benefits are modest: 150 min of moderate intensity aerobic activity. Planning physical activity into your week, although challenging, is as simple as taking two fifteen minute walks a day, which is as easy as swapping out a 5 minute drive.
How can we look at winter as a benefit not a detriment to physical activity?
Some of you reading this will have children in organized sport a few times per week, most of which are indoors (ice sports, court sports, indoor soccer, aquatic sports). Often when you drop kids off you need to run some errands during this time. However, if you don’t have to do errands then mirror your kids – BE ACTIVE!
Take advantage of the time to jog around the rink, walk the stairs in the stands, invite other parents to do a mini circuit or better yet get outside! I am certain your kids won’t miss you and on the car ride home you will feel energized by your activity bout.
Most outdoor winter activities use more muscle groups, which increases the amount of calories expended in an exercise bout. This increased muscular work improves aerobic, muscle strength and muscle endurance fitness.
Physical activity has obvious benefit to your physical wellness, but can also benefit social, mental, and environmental wellness. Consider this scenario: inviting a friend to go snow shoeing in the river valley has direct benefits to your physical wellness, but also builds your connection to your surroundings (environmental wellness) and fosters positive relationships (social wellness), while allowing you to de-stress (mental wellness). Thus, winter in Edmonton can be a time not just to maintain wellness, but also enhance wellness with activities that embrace winter such as snowshoeing.
Where can we be active winter?
Edmonton’s river valley is one of the best things about the city not only in the summer, but also the winter months. Cross country skiing, alpine skiing, snow shoeing skating, fat biking and of course tobogganing are all winter time outdoor activities that can be done in many spots in our incredible river valley. Our community ice rinks are a rare resource, which provide safe and local opportunities to be physically active while engaging in a pastime that is part of our Canadian identity. In addition, the “ice skating freezeway” and the new warming hut at Victoria speed skating oval are ways in which the City of Edmonton is trying to invigorate our winters in Edmonton.
Are there health concerns with exercising in winter?
Exercising outdoors in winter is safe for your lungs, fingers and toes. Of course, the colder it is the more protection you should take. However, just like sunburns in summer, prevention goes a long way to improving your enjoyment and safety outside in winter. Dress in breathable layers (so you can add and take layers off as need be) and wear a toque that covers your ears. It is important to have a light covering, like a buff, over your mouth and cheeks to assist in warming the air entering your lungs, especially if it’s -15C or colder. It is natural to have some coughing or wheezing if you are exercising in cold weather, but this is not damaging your lungs. Even those of you whom are asthmatic can exercise outside in cold weather if you are taking your prescribed medications.
Finally, remember staying active this winter is important to your overall health for the year. It can mean arriving at spring having maintained your body weight, keeping your blood pressure controlled and meeting the recommended amounts of physical activity for healthy adults on a weekly basis. But more importantly by embracing winter means you owned winter, winter did not own you!
By: Michael Kennedy, PhD - Associate Professor, University of Alberta