The Outdoor Winter Sports That Burn the Most Calories
Just because the temps drop doesn't mean your workout should move indoors.
I am, generally speaking, not a fan of winter weather. As soon as the temps drop, it's way more likely you'll find me heading to a boutique studio for a group workout or queuing up a live-streaming session in my living room than lacing up to run outdoors. The whole "braving the elements" thing isn't really for me, unless I'm training for a specific race, like a half marathon. Some may call me a baby because of it, but haters gonna hate-if indoor options are available, why not take advantage of them?
Still, winter workouts are intriguing. Not only do they serve up plenty of opportunity for gorgeous Instagram photos, but they also tend to be very sociable. And there's nothing quite as invigorating as surrounding yourself with nature. Plus, keeping your workout outdoors can be beneficial to your health. One study from the University of Tampere in Finland found that exercising outdoors leads to better sleep than sweating indoors. Another study published in Molecular Cell found that exposing your body to cold temps may turn white fat to brown-brown fat is metabolic tissue that actually burns calories. And Jacque Crockford, exercise scientist and exercise physiology content manager at the American Council on Exercise, says there are mental and emotional health benefits, too. "Your mood improves when you connect with nature," she says. "Getting outside is important for maintaining a healthy body, mind, and spirit."
On a recent work trip to Utah, I decided to swap out my beloved indoor routines and take a crack at four workouts that involve more frigid temps. I strapped on a Garmin Vívoactive HR for each one so I could track how my workout went statistically, and I touched base with Crockford afterward for tips on how to improve next time. Here's how each activity went.
Snowshoeing Through Weber County North Fork Park
Designated as one of only 21 dark sky parks in the entire world, snowshoeing here at night is a must-the number of stars you can see on any given night is insane. As fate would have it though, my scheduled trip coincided with a big snowstorm which, while lending itself to those magical moments of snow gently falling around you, isn't exactly conducive for stargazing. So instead I focused on my workout, and a few friends and I followed a guide for an hour-long, 2-mile trek through the park that had a few rollings hills tossed in the middle. Our reward at the end: s'mores.
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes
Calories burned: 368
Average heart rate: 132 bpm
Ascent: 259 ft
Descent: 259 ft
My Garmin doesn't have a "snowshoeing" activity option, so I went for the closest to it-walking. And while 2 miles may not seem all that far for a walk, Crockford says the snow definitely may have pushed the calorie burn a little higher. "In general, an average person can burn about 100 calories for each mile walked," she says. "The fact that you were in snow and had additional equipment, and the fact that you were in colder weather, all adds up to a slight increase in overall caloric burn." And working out at altitude definitely had an effect-with each hill we hit, I felt myself get winded much faster than I typically would at sea level, forcing me to exert more energy to cover the same distance. (Curious about altitude training? This is what it's like to wear an altitude training mask for a week.) To take it to an even higher level, though, Crockford suggests using poles next time to make it a full-body activity, tackling a trail with deeper snow, or carrying a weighted pack.
Curling Lessons at Utah Olympic Oval
I'll be honest: When I first saw curling on my itinerary, I wasn't all that excited. Sure, it's always cool to learn a new sport-and the fact that we were using the same stones used by the Olympians in the '02 Games was badass. But I've seen it play out on TV and have always wondered, "How exciting could this get?" Turns out, very. Curling is an underrated sport, one that requires a lot of strategizing (hello, brain games FTW), interval work, and perfect form. While a typical game lasts for 8 to 10 rounds (also called "ends") and can take an average of 2.5 hours to finish, I was only there to get a taste of the sport and squeezed in two ends in about 45 minutes. So, clearly, the results would be a bit higher had I played a full game. Still, the findings were interesting.
Muscles worked: Arms, core, quads
Calories burned: 382
Steps taken: 1,831
Given that curling isn't at the height of popularity on the winter workout scale, my Garmin once again didn't have an activity I could select to totally track this workout. Instead, I monitored the calorie burn and step tracker, and paid attention to how I felt throughout the game. The main takeaway? Curling is more of an anaerobic workout (which Crockford confirms), and you sure as hell feel the burn when you sweep to make the stone move faster across the ice. After each turn, I noticed I was out of breath and my arms, core, and quads were ready for a break after using them to put more power into my sweep. When I delivered-or "threw"-the stone myself (each teammate gets to do so twice in a typical end), I had to keep my core and glutes tight to maintain proper form while still giving myself enough power to launch across the ice. Translation: Curling is a lot harder than it looks! Crockford says being in the cold ice rink increases energy expenditure to keep the body warm, and having to balance while moving around on the ice adds an additional challenge. My next question: Could cosmic curling make it even more worthwhile?
Beginner Skiing at Brighton Resort
I may have grown up in a ski-bunny family, but I am not a skier myself. In fact, I hadn't been on a pair in 17 years. So when my group headed to Brighton Resort for a day of skiing, I signed up for a day of lessons. By the time I was ready to actually move down the mountain on two beginner trails, this is what my Garmin says happened in 30 minutes:
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, core, arms
Calories burned: 224
Average heart rate: 133 bpm
Average speed: 5.4 mph
Descent: 1,932 feet (for one run)
Crockford says that, because I'm a beginner, it makes sense that my speed wasn't very fast-but my distance is great and the fact that I incorporated plenty of turns helped make the run longer and the workout itself harder. As I become more comfortable, I'll work on picking up the pace to make it even more of a cardiovascular workout, though she says strength plays a big role in me safely making it down the mountain, too. (Try this workout to prep for ski season and prevent injury.) When I'm ready for more difficulty, Crockford says the next step would be more challenging trails, even more turns, and possibly carrying a pack to change my center of gravity and increase resistance.
Snowshoeing to Yurt Dinner at Solitude Inn
Okay, so I may have done snowshoeing once already, but tackling new terrain makes it a different workout. I didn't have snowfall or wind to contend with this tme, but the deeper snow still helped me work up an appetite on my way to dinner in a Mongolian yurt. (Which, side note, I can now cross off my adventure #bucketlist.)
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes
Calories burned: 312
Average heart rate: 117 bpm
Ascent: 82 feet
Descent: 82 feet
The 1.2-mile path may not have been as far as my first snowshoeing trek, but the deeper, softer snow contributed to the higher calorie burn, says Crockford. Next time I'll add a weighted pack-and be sure there's room to sneak out some leftovers.