Start slowly when beginning winter activities

From the ski slope to the ice fishing pond, there is an activity for everyone.

By: Pat Miller .

Dr. Rory Farnan getting some winter exercise on the ski slope
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The new pair of downhill skis Santa placed under the Christmas tree a month ago has been sitting in the corner too long. The time to put the television remote on the table and head to the advanced slope has arrived.

Or has it?

“The goal (for exercise) is 30 minutes of activity five days a week, but people have to start at their own pace,” said Rory Farnan, M.D., an interventional cardiologist for Sanford Health. “Skiing (and other winter outdoor activities) can be tremendously physically demanding, and you want to know that you can handle it.

“You should not start intense activity right away. You should not go from couch potato to intense exercise,” Farnan said. “My biggest fear with my patients is they will have a heart attack, and if you go from being a couch potato to something like running a marathon, you could be in harm.”

Sanford Health orthopedic physician Mark Carlson agrees.

“In general terms, the most important principle when doing a winter activity, or starting new activities, is to just take it easy,” he said. “It is best to start slowly and gradually increase (the intensity) as you become comfortable and capable.

“And it always is a recommendation for anyone who is on a medication, or who has a medical condition, to check with their doctor regarding what types of exercise would be appropriate,” Dr. Carlson said. “The people who run into trouble with injuries often are people who jump in too fast and try to do too much too quickly. They can end up with tendinopathy and muscle overuse.”

Or worse.

Watch for signs

Exercise is good for everyone, but people should continually monitor themselves and pay close attention to any potential negative reactions.

“Skiing, for example, can be fun, but it also can be tremendously physically demanding. Before you start, you need to know that you can handle it,” said Dr. Farnan, who has been a competitive ski racer and ski coach. “Your doctor may want to schedule a stress test on the treadmill (to assess your overall heart health).

“If you are sedentary and want to do something very strenuous, there are risks. Angina is different for everybody. Different people feel different things and, if you have any warning symptoms during an activity, you should let your primary care physician or cardiologist know about it.”

Dealing with the cold

Layering, wearing the proper clothing and remaining hydrated are important tools when contending with frigid conditions. Hockey players and fans in Bemidji, Minnesota, recently learned how important preparation can be when the community hosted Minnesota Hockey Day.

During the three marquee games Jan. 19, the outside temperature never climbed above 0 degrees. And the folks who were part of the 9:30 a.m. high school game had to deal with temperatures in the 20-below-zero range.

“If you are too cold for too long, it could be dangerous because the cortisol level can go higher, and if you have a physiological stress, it can be hard on the heart in a long-term and short-term setting,” Dr. Farnan said.

Layering will help keep the body warm and, consequently, will lessen the stress risk.

According to Dr. Carlson, the air that is trapped within the layers will provide warmth. That warmth within the core will help maintain blood flow to the extremities, which usually are the initial parts of the body that experience frostbite.

Whiteness of the skin, especially in the tips of the fingers and nose, is a frostbite indicator, while shivering often is related to hypothermia, Dr. Carlson said. If you experience any of those signs while enjoying winter outdoor activities, it may be time to quit and head indoors or to a campfire.

Stay active year-round

Cross country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and skating are all healthy winter activities. But to help reduce the risk of health issues associated with those pursuits, Dr. Carlson has a simple suggestion.

“One of the best things you can do to ready muscles for winter exercises is to stay active all year long,” he said. “Instead of only having an active few months of the year, be active all year, and the beauty of living (in the northern part of the country) is that it  forces you to do different things because the weather changes.

“You can do biking, swimming and other things in the summer, and when the winter comes, you can switch to skiing, skating, snowmobiling and other options. There is a natural variety of activities to do and it is healthy to stay active in a variety of ways because it forces you to move different things and use different athletic skills,” Dr. Carlson added.

Aerobic and anaerobic exercise

Most winter activities feature aerobic and anaerobic exercises. Skiing, for example, requires strength to maneuver along the trails and down the hills. Snowmobilers must employ their chest, arm and leg muscles to maintain the machine’s balance and steering. Ice anglers must use their entire muscular system to move fish houses, drill holes and shovel snow.

“The perfect set of exercises to prepare you for winter would include aerobic and anaerobic activities. You would be surprised how many times snowmobilers think they are having heart issues because their chest seems tight. But sometimes (the tightness) is because they are using those muscles to steer the machine,” Dr. Farnan said.

“Using the treadmill, walking and using weights all will help prepare you (for winter pursuits). Some information also suggests that strength training can help with weight loss. Balance also can be an issue with some of our older patients, and some of the strengthening exercises are helping (with those issues).”

Start slowly with the exercise regimen, but, when ready, don’t be afraid to test yourself.

“When you are doing the 30- or 40-minute exercise, to get the full health benefits, some of that time should be high intensity, which means you should be huffing and puffing a little bit,” Dr. Carlson said.

“It also is very important for everyone, young and old, to do some resistance exercises. Strength training is good for the muscles and also for the bones.”

The more the merrier

When the snow falls and the temperature drops, it is time to head outdoors and enjoy the season’s unique opportunities.

From the top of a ski slope to the 30-foot underwater rock pile where the walleyes roam at twilight, there are winter activities for everyone. But only if you are physically ready for the challenges.

“Don’t jump into exercise, stay hydrated and stay comfortable,” Dr. Farnan said. “And when you are ready, do a wide variety of activities. Enjoying multiple winter activities that work the entire body would be good for everyone. In my mind, when it comes to winter activities, the more the merrier.”

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