Liz Perry carries her daughter Natalie on a snowshoe adventure at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston, Maine, Friday afternoon, Jan. 18, 2019, as her husband Stephen Perry follows closely behind. Credit: Andree Kehn / Sun Journal via AP

It’s especially easy to become sedentary during the winter in Maine, when freezing temperatures and early sunsets encourage curling up on the couch under a warm blanket. Yet exercise is important year round for both your physical and mental health.

Winter outdoor activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice skating can help you stay healthy during cold months, while giving you the opportunity to breathe fresh air and enjoy a change of scenery. And this winter, during the COVID-19 pandemic, pursuing those activities may be more important than ever.

“Right now in 2020, when [many] people can’t go to the gyms or to the mall to walk, it’s really important to find an activity like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing that you can do outside in order to get that physical activity,” said Casey Estes, clinic director and a physical therapist at Back in Motion Physical Therapy, which has seven clinics through Maine. “It’s not just the physical aspects [of the activity that matters] — regular exercise can help decrease stress levels.”

While at-home, indoor exercises are also a great option for staying active this winter, outdoor activities offer added health benefits that are associated with simply spending time in nature, said Lauren Jacobs, lecturer in outdoor leadership at the University of Maine.

“There are all sorts of documented benefits of being in nature, such as reducing stress,” Jacobs said. “And a bunch of studies have shown that people tend to exercise more vigorously when they’re outdoors. There’s just something about being outdoors that makes you feel like you can work harder but doesn’t feel as hard as if you were doing that same exercise on a treadmill [indoors].”

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How different outdoor winter activities benefit your body

One simple outdoor winter activity is walking on cleared sidewalks or trails with hard-packed snow, where snowshoes aren’t necessary to stay afloat. An often underrated form of exercise, walking burns calories and strengthens muscles. It can strengthen your joints and slow bone loss, improve your circulation and breathing, and even improve your sleep, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

However, in the winter, you may need to fasten ice cleats onto your walking shoes to improve your traction on packed snow and ice.

“Falling in the winter is definitely a valid concern. I think that’s one thing that keeps people from getting out,” Jacobs said. “Investing in the little grippers [or ice cleats] for the bottom of your sneakers is something that’s a relatively small investment that I think can really help people feel comfortable being outdoors this time of year.”

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are two of the most beginner-friendly, low impact winter activities that people can try, Jacobs and Estes agree. Both activities provide full-body workouts, improving your range of motion and strengthening muscles in your arms, legs and core. They also get your heart pumping and lungs working hard, which strengthens your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Compared to walking, both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing require more bending at the knees, hips and ankles, Estes said. They also require more balance and coordination, though the use of poles helps by giving you more points of contact on the ground. Poles are also used to help propel yourself forward, so you’re not just building leg strength, you’re building arm strength.

Other popular winter sports that are great exercises include ice skating, fat tire biking and downhill skiing, and each has its benefits and challenges. But at the end of the day, just being active outdoors is what’s really important, Jacobs said.

“If you’re a parent, just get outside and play with your kids,” she said. “Building a fort is a great way for you to get active without thinking about it. Or go sledding or have a snowball fight. Just play.”

In addition to improving your physical health, outdoor exercise can improve your overall mood and reduce your stress level. And while this sounds wonderful in and of itself, the benefits can extend even further.

“One thing we run into a lot [in physical therapy work] is how people’s nervous systems are impacted by stress,” Estes said. “Decreasing stress can decrease sensitivity in the nerves, so it can help people decrease the pain they feel.”

Furthermore, as exercise builds stronger muscles and joints, that too can decrease the amount of aches and pains you feel throughout the winter.

A man walks back to his vehicle with his dog after an outing at the Bangor Municipal Golf Course, Jan 30, 2019. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Tips for getting started with exercising outdoors

On a cold, windy day, it can be challenging to motivate yourself to step outside and exert a bunch of energy.

“I think a barrier to people being active outdoors in the winter is just that people are really nervous about being too cold,” Jacobs said.

Yet it’s easy to stay warm and comfortable outside, she said. Dress in warm layers of clothing, and if you plan to be outside for prolonged periods of time then carry a small backpack to stow away any layers that you take off. Once you get moving, your body will warm up quickly.

“Just like anything, there’s a learning curve to learning how to dress and be comfortable outdoors in the winter,” Jacobs said. “But really, people can be comfortable and safe in any temperature Maine has to throw at us. One of my favorite things to tell people is that in Fairbanks, Alaska, schools don’t cancel recess unless it’s lower than 20 degrees below zero.”

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Another potential barrier is limited daylight, especially for people who work 9-to-5 jobs. By the time they get home, it’s dark, and this could discourage them from exercising outdoors — but it doesn’t have to.

“I think some of this is cultural,” Jacobs said. “There are lots of northern communities that have sort of just embraced exercising outdoors in the dark. So if you go to Alaska, people are still exercising when it’s dark because they’d never exercise all winter if they didn’t. I lived in Quebec City and the same is true there. People just ski in the dark. They wear headlamps.”

Then there’s the issue of time. Even if you’re willing to brave the cold and the dark, can you find the time? How often do you need to exercise for it to make a difference?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week. Estes said this can easily be broken down to exercising four or five times a week, with at least 30 minutes allotted for each workout. And he stressed the importance of allowing your body two days of rest per week.

But it can be challenging to jump into that sort of routine right away, especially if you haven’t been exercising at all.

“What I recommend to people is just to start somewhere,” Jacobs said. “If people have sort of fallen into a bit of a dip and they haven’t been exercising or getting outside, I think it’s great to say, ‘I’m going to go for a walk or snowshoe every Wednesday.’ Just start somewhere because often, when you feel good about what you did and find the joy in being outdoors, you want to keep doing it. It will naturally build up to you getting outside and exercising multiple times of week.”

During a global pandemic, when stress is high and cabin fever has reached new heights, there’s no better time to start a new healthy habit. The first step is out your front door.

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Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...