Is Cross-Country Skiing Good Exercise? Top Benefits, According to an Olympian

From challenging every single muscle to helping you de-stress, the perks of cross-country skiing will convince you to hit the trails, stat.

A young woman cross country skiing in the mountains
Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty

From the moment the first layer of powder settles on the frozen ground to the last big melt of the season, skiers and snowboarders alike pack the slopes for some snow-filled fun. And while those cold-weather sports are sure to help you break a sweat and clear your head, cross-country skiing — arguably the underdog of the season — is just as deserving of your time.

Unlike alpine skiing, cross-country skiing involves gliding across relatively flat terrain, relying on your own power and strength — not the decline of a hill — to get you from point A to B. The classic style of cross-country skiing, which most skiers typically start off with, entails moving your legs forward and back as if you’re running with skis on, while the more-complex skating method involves moving your legs side to side in an ice skating-like motion. The result of both styles: A seriously tough workout, says Rosie Brennan, an Olympic cross-country skier and a two-time winner on the World Cup circuit.

Is skiing good exercise?

Cross-country skiing can be an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise.

Here, she breaks down the biggest physical and mental health benefits of cross-country skiing. And if you end up totally convinced to strap on some skis and grab two poles this winter, Brennan recommends finding your local Nordic center, where you can rent equipment, take lessons, and hit the trails.

It’s a quick, full-body workout.

Sliding across snow-covered trails may not seem like much of a burner, but trust, it’s much more strenuous than it looks. “To me, the best part about cross-country skiing is that it literally works every single muscle you have,” says Brennan. “It’s like one of the hardest sports for that reason.” Your triceps and lat muscles drive your poles into the ground and propel you forward; your legs keep your body and skis moving; your hips and glutes work to keep you stable; and your core helps transfer the power you’re generating from the upper body through your legs and into the skis, she explains.

And since you’re calling on every single muscle to tackle the trail, you’re also burning “an absurd amount of calories,” making it a super-efficient workout, adds Brennan. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that an hour of cross-country skiing burns as many calories as two and a half hours of alpine skiing. (Although, moving your body is about more than just burning calories.)

It boosts your heart health.

Not only does cross-country skiing build muscle, but constantly shuffling your feet forward and driving your poles into the snow also gets your heart pumping, which is why the sport is often regarded as the “gold standard” of winter aerobic exercise. World-class cross-country skiers have some of the highest VO₂ max values ever reported, according to a study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. ICYDK, VO₂ max (maximal oxygen consumption) is the highest amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise. The more oxygen a person can use, the more energy they can produce, and the longer they can perform, according to the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine. (FYI, you can increase your VO₂ max with these tips.)

What’s more, a high VO₂ max is an indicator of strong cardiorespiratory fitness, or the ability of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels to pump oxygen-rich blood to muscles during long periods of aerobic exercise. And maintaining this cardiorespiratory fitness is important, especially since low levels can increase your risk of developing heart disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.“When you’re using every muscle you have, your heart is pumping a lot of blood to carry the oxygen to your muscles, so the heart gets stronger and your lungs get stronger doing it,” adds Brennan. “I think cardiovascular health is probably the biggest benefit to the sport.”

It’s easy on your joints and good for your bones.

Like running, dancing, and stair climbing, cross-country skiing is a weight-bearing aerobic exercise, meaning you’re up on your feet — and your bones are supporting your weight — the entire time. This type of activity not only helps build muscle, says Brennan, but it can also slow mineral loss — a phenomenon that weakens bones and ups your risk of breaking one — in your legs, hips, and lower spin, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The packed powder you’re gliding across also comes with a few perks. “Because you're on snow, the weight-bearing doesn’t have the negative impact of pounding your joints that it does with running,” says Brennan. In fact, a small study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that cross-country skiing put less force on lower hip joints than running. And during low-impact activities, the body is subject to less stress, which reduces the risk of injury, particularly in those with arthritis, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rosie Brennan

To me, the best part about cross-country skiing is that it literally works every single muscle you have. It’s like one of the hardest sports for that reason.

— Rosie Brennan

It improves your coordination and agility.

To propel yourself across a cross-country ski trail, you need to keep each pole in sync with the opposite ski, all while completely shifting your weight from one ski into the other with every stride, says Brennan. (For instance, as you take a step with your right foot, you push the ground with your left pole and simultaneously shift all of your weight into your right foot.) And both of those actions require some serious coordination, she adds. “I think for someone to progress from first putting skis on to get to that point [of shifting all of your weight] is a really good accomplishment and will certainly help in all aspects of sport and life,” she says.

Plus, cross-country skiing is an excellent exercise because it constantly tests and improves your agility. While sliding around on roughly six-foot-long skis, you need to be nimble and step quickly, particularly when you’re rounding a corner or skiing around a group of people, explains Brennan. “Unlike alpine skiing, we don’t have metal edges, so when you need to go around a corner, you can’t just lean into it and carve this beautiful turn, she says. “We’re actually stepping it, you’re taking these little steps, similar to a hockey player or something. That’s all agility.”

You can get into it at any age.

Unlike gymnastics and ice skating, sports you typically start training for at a young age, cross-country skiing is a good exercise that's easy to pick up at any point in your life. For example, Brennan’s mom first tried the sport when she was in her 30s, and Brennan herself didn’t get into it until she was 14 years old, she says. “It’s worth putting in the time to learn the skill because you can do it your whole life,” she explains. “And because of how much lower of an impact it has on your joints and things like that, my grandma goes out skiing — and she just turned 90.”

It boosts your mental wellbeing.

By strapping on your skis and immersing yourself in nature, you might just get the stress relief and mood boost you need. Research shows that exercising in forests — and even just sitting and looking at trees — can reduce blood pressure and levels of the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s just a release from the hecticness of everyday life, of being stuck inside, working from home, or whatever people are struggling with these days,” adds Brennan. “It’s so underrated and so beneficial. If you only have an hour, the benefit of outdoor exercise for your brain is so much better than going to a gym or trying to do a workout in your garage.”

Cross-country skiing itself provides its own unique mental health benefits, too. “What I love about skiing is that I can just put my skis on, go out in the woods, and have that nice, free feeling of gliding on snow, which kind of gives you a little sense of freedom,” she says. “It’s kind of rhythmic, so you can have the ability to process your thoughts and enjoy fresh air, nature, and all the beauty around you.”

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