Winter can be intimidating. The cold weather can easily prompt us to want to stay indoors, as far away from outside as possible. But, whether we like it or not, our health status doesn’t take a break during winter, and neither should we. For beginners and experts alike, diets, the gym, and other health tools can get old quickly.
Several years ago, I lost 30 pounds (14 kg) by using the Mediterranean diet and walking on a treadmill almost every day for an extended time. The diet included healthy eating, but the treadmill was tedious and boring. I did burn calories and lost weight. But, I gained much of the weight back over the years and find it harder to drop as time goes on. Luckily, that’s where the sport of snowshoeing comes in to support me, both for the body and the mind.
Keeps Our Mind Healthy
The winter blues are real. Depression, anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, and other mental health concerns can wreak havoc during the wintertime when nights are long, temperatures are cold, and the weather has a mind of its own. However, getting outdoors in the winter can tremendously impact one’s mental health and state of mind. The outdoors offers a fresh perspective and a chance to breathe from life’s difficult moments. Especially given the current 2020 winter onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we need mental health time outdoors in the fresh air and away from people.
Snowshoeing provides an opportunity to relax or challenge our minds. We have the decision-making power to choose whether our snowshoe outing is a short stroll or a strenuous, day-long hike. If your mind needs a break, a quick snowshoe around the block or near home after a snowstorm might be just what you need. However, if you’re feeling stuck or in a rut, a difficult and challenging hike may provide that confidence and self-esteem boost needed to take care of your mental health.
We can also choose whether to snowshoe alone for some quiet or use it as a bonding experience with others. The connection between others and with nature that snowshoeing provides can make a tremendous impact on us.
Furthermore, “throughout evolution, sunlight-produced vitamin D in the skin has been critically important for health,” as well, writes vitamin D specialist and author, Dr. Michael D. Holick. Winter sunlight not only provides us with this vitamin D, but it also has positive effects on serotonin levels, both of which affect our mood and physical health.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Speaking of physical health, snowshoeing has a multitude of physical health benefits. Snowshoeing may seem just like walking (and it is for the most part). However, breaking trail in fresh snow is tough! As an aerobic activity, snowshoeing will get your heart pumping, which speeds up blood flow to your muscles and lungs. This increase in blood flow results in more oxygen and increases your body’s efficiency. So over time, aerobic activities result in longer, healthier lives.
Just ask Dr. Ray Browning from the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado’s Health Science Center. Several articles reference his thoughts on snowshoeing. He mentions that it is “an exceptional way to achieve cardiovascular fitness, expend energy, and reduce your chance of heart disease.”
Workout For Your Muscles
Along with improving your cardiovascular fitness, snowshoeing provides health benefits for your muscles, especially your lower body. Similar to walking, snowshoeing primarily activates your quadriceps (front thigh), hamstrings (back thigh), glutes (booty), and calves. The extent to which your muscles are activated increases with the number of hills, namely ascents and descents.
However, we also need to balance and stabilize ourselves as we’re moving. In this regard, our back muscles and abdominals come in to save the day. The back muscles on both sides of the spine and the abdominal six-pack all work to control the trunk area while you’re snowshoeing.
Without a doubt, snowshoeing helps people keep fit and burn calories. For those concerned about weight management, snowshoeing burns more calories than walking at the same pace and duration. The weight of snowshoes and winter clothing, combined with resistance against the snow, results in more exertion. Thus, it leads to more calories burned.
Various studies support this effect. For example, Tubbs Snowshoes references studies by the University of Vermont showing that snowshoers can burn from 420-1000 calories per hour depending on pace and snow conditions. The University of California’s Berkeley Wellness publication, “Snowshoeing Through Winter,” echoes this sentiment. They state, “Depending on how long you walk and the terrain you choose, snowshoeing can provide a good aerobic workout, often more strenuous than walking.” The publication lists that walking in snowshoes at 3 miles (5 km) per hour can burn about 350 calories in an hour. Furthermore, a brisker pace can increase calories burned to about 500/ hr. Add hiking poles or a walking stick for an upper-body workout or go running on snowshoes, and the calories continue to rise.
However, keep in mind that no matter what the research or studies report, the calories burned depend on many variables. A person’s weight and the gear they’re carrying, the pace they are moving, their metabolism rate, and the amount of exertion expended on the outing will all impact calories burned. Furthermore, the depth, density, and weight of the snow, terrain, outdoor temperature, wind speed, and elevation play a part in calories burned.
Thus, it may be almost impossible to take all variables into account for a precise rate. However, an approximation is close enough to know about how many calories you burn when snowshoeing.
How To Determine Calorie Approximation
As a starting point, Health Research Funding provides charts of calories burned while snowshoeing, categorized by body weight and time. Similar to the statistics listed above, they point out that snowshoeing burns about 45% more calories than walking or running at the same speed. But again, for the full health benefits of calories burned while snowshoeing, it depends on the other factors mentioned. For further clarification, though, they state that “All calorie calculations are based on a mid-intensity workout and normal speed.”
As a second option, a calories-burned rating system that I enjoy playing with is done by the University of Rochester’s Medical Center. They provide a “Calorie Burn Rate Calculator” whereby you can type in your weight (be honest now), and the results are estimated calories burned per hour for a person of your approximate weight.
Unique to their calculator is that it provides estimated calories burned for an extraordinary list of physical activities, including snowshoeing and shoveling snow by hand. And in warmer seasons, you can even find rates for mowing the lawn with a power mower, raking your lawn, and gardening.
I put in 190 pounds (86 kg), and my estimated calories burned per hour snowshoeing came to 768 calories. As a comparison, I shovel snow after each storm and see that I burn 576 calories in the same amount of time. So, I tried to convince my wife, Liz, that it would be healthier for me to go snowshoeing rather than shoveling snow. Unfortunately, I still have to do the shoveling.
For someone with an injury or joint concerns, snowshoeing is an excellent low-impact winter activity. Unlike hiking on hard ground, the snow provides a soft buffer for joints when out on the trail. Snowshoeing also provides less pressure on your joints overall, especially when compared to other winter activities such as skiing and snowboarding. Thus, your knees, ankles, and hips will thank you for feeling less strained.
Please remember, though, that injury varies. Even though the activity is low-impact, it may not fit your specific injury, and you should always talk to your doctor beforehand.
Flexible Intensity Level
Even though snowshoeing is low impact, it isn’t necessarily a low-intensity sport. You can alter your route and pace to meet your intensity preference for the day.
For strenuous workouts, a faster pace, longer route, or route with hills and elevation gains might fill your need. However, if you prefer a less strenuous outing or if you’re a newcomer to snowshoeing, you may snowshoe at your local park, take a shorter route, or stick to a relatively flat trail.
Namely, this flexibility suits a wide variety of lifestyles. Plus, it’s a lifesaver for those who like to change workouts based on moods or external factors.
It’s All About The Benefits
Overall, if you are trying to find something to do in winter or have never snowshoed before, consider the benefits of taking up snowshoeing. Besides being a low-cost outdoor winter sport with a straightforward learning curve, snowshoeing is a low-impact activity that provides a good cardiovascular workout while burning away those calories. All you have to do is adjust it to your pace and intensity level. Choose which snowshoes to use, then rent, borrow or purchase a pair of snowshoes and give it a try.
The evidence cites the benefits so, whether or not you choose one from a list of the top 100 diets out there on the internet, snowshoeing can be the perfect winter activity to help keep your weight and health in check. So, make snowshoeing one of your winter recreation activities and burn baby burn!
This article was originally published on April 16, 2020. It was updated on Jan 10, 2021.
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