As we transition from winter into spring, we can do ourselves a favor by not pushing too hard when we start to hike, bike, climb or get active playing tennis or any other sport.
Staying active during the winter months increases our strength and improves our mood. It also ensures that when the time comes for spring and summer sports, we are in better shape which reduces the chance of injury.
With spring break coming up, it's time to think about getting outside for not only downhill skiing, but also for other winter sports like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Research in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine shows that you need to downhill ski for two and a half hours to expend the same amount of energy as one hour of cross-country skiing. Snowshoeing burns twice the number of calories as walking at the same speed and is a great way to prevent gaining extra pounds in the winter.
Better mental and physical health
Rob Drenning is the lead physical therapist at Holy Cross Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation. A skier, snowboarder, mountain biker and runner himself, he says that exercise is great for our mental health, which some people struggle with in the winter months. "Exercise improves sleep patterns, mood, cognition, and lowers stress. Having a sport or activity to look forward to really helps during the colder months," he observes.
There are physical benefits of staying active such as cardiovascular health, improved muscle function and joint health, according to Drenning. He adds that low-impact sports like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are good for our joints, which get more worn-out with age.
Working with people recovering from surgery or injury, Drenning helps wake up muscles with hands-on treatment and exercise. His best advice for preventing injuries is gradually to increase your activity level, no matter what activity you are undertaking. "This gives your muscles and joints time to accommodate to new loads. Cross-training through the year, in other words, being involved in many activities versus just one is also good. A gradual warmup prior to activity like walking can also help," he says.
He explains that we have an "envelope of function," which defines how much load our joints can take. If we don't stay active, that load can change and shrink. If we gradually increase that load or force, our muscles and joints get used to being active and are ready for new activities.
Unlike what we may have learned, the benefits of stretching before exercise have not been conclusively proven, says Drenning. In studies, the practice of stretching and holding a position has not been shown to help reduce injury and in some cases, it appeared to reduce performance. A more recent approach is "dynamic stretching," which replicates the action of the activity we are about to undertake. Drenning says that's why we see football players doing drills like raising their knees up high before a game. Although even this form of stretching has not been conclusively shown to benefit performance, Drenning advises paying attention to what your body tells you. "I personally warm up before I exercise," he says. "I feel like it helps. You can also do any type of warm-up activity, like walking."
As we transition from winter into spring, we can do ourselves a favor by not pushing too hard when we start to hike, bike, climb or get active playing tennis or any other sport. Drenning knows getting consistent exercise can be a challenge; he has two young kids. He says, "When you have kids, time gets shorter. I try to pay attention to my body and feel when it is time to rest or push through. My physical therapy training helps me to manage my own aches and pains."
He adds, "The best thing to prepare for spring/summer sports is simply to stay active during the winter. The most injuries I see happen when people get too excited about the warmer weather and try to pick up where they left off with hiking, biking, etc. at the end of last summer. That's where winter sports play a huge role, keeping us active year-round."
An Eastern medicine approach
In many respects, Eastern medicine agrees with Western medicine about the benefits of winter exercise for both the spirit and the body. Caroline Colonna is a doctor of oriental medicine, who has been practicing at Willow Clinic in Taos since 1998. In addition, she is a world-class athlete engaging in sports all year-round including skiing, snowshoeing, trail running, cycling, swimming and dancing. She is also the mother of two athletic teenagers.
"Almost all sports promote movement, which results in increased blood circulation and oxygen flow throughout the body, thus promoting energy or qi, which is life force in Chinese medicine. When we have more qi and it flows properly throughout our body, we feel more awake, our senses become more alive, we are happier. More flow to a specific area of the body where there may be chronic tension can result in less pain, as increased flow of qi removes stagnation or sluggish energy.
Moving our bodies therefore helps us harmonize qi and benefits our health," says Colonna.
She points out that winter sports are a great way to keep moving in the winter to maintain good health, while playing in nature's beauty. Because winter weather is more taxing on the body, it is important to acclimate to the cold, the high altitude and the snow in order to enjoy ourselves better outdoors in the winter, says Colonna. To prepare to be outdoors, she suggests having good technical clothing, smart hydration and nutrition and a proper strength and cardio preparation.
In order to reduce injuries to the back and hips, consistent core strengthening is important and resistance stretching (which uses tension on the muscle while it's in an elongated position) can increase flexibility while activating proper muscle movement, says Colonna. Some studies are showing that resistance exercise in combination with body conditioning and warm-ups are showing promise for better injury prevention. "I spend time on the inversion table to increase traction in my spine as well as blood flow to my brain increasing mental functions," she adds.
Looking to spring
Like many of us, Colonna looks forward to the coming of spring as an opportunity to transition from winter sports into spring activities. "I like mountain biking at Taos Northside, which gets plenty of snow and offers spectacular backcountry skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. As soon as the snow and mud dry up, I love running or mountain biking on trails where skis and snowshoes were the only way to go during the winter months."
Colonna says that winter sports is a smart way to build physical strength and endurance toward a productive active and enjoyable spring and summer of hiking, climbing and biking in the mountains. For those who are competitive athletes, she says "Taos offers an amazing array of trail systems and variety of terrains suitable for any athlete who wishes to undertake events anywhere in the world. I attribute all my triathlon, biking and running successes to the world-class training conditions Taos offers."
It's not too late to get out and enjoy the fresh cool air of the last bit of winter so you can feel healthier and happier. If you haven't been active this winter or have a known health condition, be sure to consult your health care practitioner about how to get started.
Coming up next week in the Feb. 21The Taos News Great Outdoors section - look for suggestions on where to go for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
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