Nature's Gym: Exploring the Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Cross-Country Skiing

Nature's Gym: Exploring the Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Cross-Country Skiing

Abby Stanislaw

By Abby Stanislaw \ March 12 2024

"Embrace the rhythm of pole plant, exhale, glide," echoes through my mind, each repetition through the dark and cold undertones of winter. The trees blur in my periphery, the snow is soft under my skis and beads of sweat drip down my forehead. Yet, amidst all of these sensations, I only have the mental energy to hone in on three: pole planting, exhaling and gliding. These are the sensations that envelop me every time I head out for a skate skiing workout—a passion I discovered about a decade ago during a volunteering trip in the remote town of Point Hope, Alaska.

Originally an accompaniment to the alpine skiing of my youth, skate skiing quickly became an exciting new challenge. It introduced me to a novel way of traveling through snow, a camaraderie with friends, and an invigorating workout. Little did I anticipate the wealth of health benefits concealed within the grueling workout of skate skiing. In this blog, I'll unravel the physical and mental benefits of cross-country skiing—both in its classic and skate forms—revealing why I've never looked back since that first day I got on skis.

Physical Fitness:

It is so common during the winter months for people to gain weight, reduce cardiovascular fitness and develop unfavorable changes in blood lipid profiles. This is because during the winter months, as compared to summer, there are fewer comfortable ways for people to recreate outdoors, thereby reducing outdoor recreation levels. Cross-Country skiing, with its narrow skis and gliding stance, challenges balance, offering a low-impact and joint-friendly workout. This activity builds lateral stability in the hips while strengthening arms, legs and core.

A well-written study by Stöggl et, al. compared indoor cycling, alpine skiing, and cross-country skiing's effects on energy expenditure, heart rate, rate of perceived exertion (in arms and legs), VO2 (volume of maximal oxygen consumption) and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). They found that both cross-country skiing and indoor cycling were more demanding on the cardiorespiratory system than alpine skiing. This is likely because alpine skiing has shorter bouts of exercise (while descending the slope) followed by longer rest periods (standing in line, riding a chair lift). They also found that VO2 requirements and energy expenditure were higher in indoor cycling and cross-country skiing as compared to alpine skiing. They found that the rate of perceived exertion was only elevated in cross-country skiing, as opposed to alpine skiing or indoor cycling.

A study by Van Hall et al. reported energy expenditure of approximately 1,220 calories burned per hour during whole body (diagonal stride) and 287 calories burned per hour during arm work (double poling). They even found that slow walking on skis burned up to 644 calories per hour in some participants. This is a significant calorie expenditure increase compared to alpine skiing, which, due to the number of rest breaks, is estimated to burn roughly 250-500 calories per hour (note, this number is incredibly variable depending on a person's weight, fitness level, skill level, terrain choices, turn radii and amount of time waiting in the lift line and riding chair lifts).

In addition to fitness benefits, multiple studies cited improvements in cardiovascular health, including reduced risk of heart attacks, reduced rates of development of type 2 diabetes, reduced risk of stroke and reduced risk of developing high blood pressure. One study note found that up to 24 years after initial baseline measurements were taken, 60 minutes of cross-country skiing per week (during winter months) demonstrated a reduced risk of developing high blood pressure over the two-plus decade time span. That study states that the increased amount of time spent cross-country skiing, up to 200 minutes per week during winter months, is inversely related to rates of high blood pressure (i.e. hypertension). 

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Mental Well-being:

The mental health benefits of cross-country are also quite impressive. First and foremost, when cross-country skiing (unless using a giant cross-country ski treadmill in a specialized facility), you are almost always outdoors. There is a plethora of research regarding the mental health benefits of being in nature, and the more removed you are from the hustle and bustle of human-made constructs, the better (hello, crust skiing!). Exercising outdoors can improve anxiety, reduce stress levels, improve affect, improve cognition and increase feelings of restoration and overall well-being.

Physical activity in and of itself also has many mental health benefits and has been studied numerous times. A study by Lee et. al. in 2019 observed the effects of cross-country skiing on college students and noted that they not only had the physical benefits of reduced heart rate but also increased enjoyment of the activity vs. not participating in skiing at all. The researchers noted that "expected enjoyment from physical activities can increase exercise intentions and the mere anticipation of positive emotions predicts physical activity adoption and maintenance." 

In skiing, be it alpine or cross-country, age, fitness level, and pace become irrelevant distinctions. It's a sport that embraces both solitude and companionship, offering a cathartic and wholesome experience regardless of one's preference.


References:

  • Jari A Laukkanen, Timo A Lakka, Babatope A Ogunjesa, Sudhir Kurl, Setor K Kunutsor, Cross-country skiing and the risk of acute myocardial infarction: A prospective cohort study, European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, Volume 27, Issue 10, 1 July 2020, Pages 1108–1111, https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487319869696
  • Kunutsor, Setor K.a,b; Mäkikallio, Timo H.c; Kauhanen, Jussid; Voutilainen, Arid; Jae, Sae Y.e,f; Kurl, Sudhird; Laukkanen, Jari A.d,g,h. Leisure-time cross-country skiing is associated with lower incidence of hypertension: a prospective cohort study. Journal of Hypertension 37(8):p 1624-1632, August 2019. | DOI: 10.1097/HJH.0000000000002110
  • Lackey, N. Q., Tysor, D. A., McNay, G. D., Joyner, L., Baker, K. H., & Hodge, C. (2021). Mental health benefits of nature-based recreation: a systematic review. Annals of Leisure Research24(3), 379-393.
  • Laukkanen JA, Laukkanen T, Kunutsor SK. Cross-country skiing is associated with lower all-cause mortality: A population-based follow-up study. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018; 28: 1064–1072. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.12980
  • Lee, H. W., Yoo, J., Cha, J. Y., Ji, C. H., Eun, D., Jang, J. H., ... & Jee, Y. S. (2019). Effects of winter skiing on stress, heart rate, apprehension, and enjoyment in collegiate students: a single randomized controlled trial. Journal of exercise rehabilitation15(2), 235.
  • Mirehie, M., & Gibson, H. J. (2020). Women’s participation in snow-sports and sense of well-being: a positive psychology approach. Journal of Leisure Research51(4), 397-415.
  • Stöggl T, Schwarzl C, Müller EE, Nagasaki M, Stöggl J, Scheiber P, Schönfelder M, Niebauer J. A Comparison between Alpine Skiing, Cross-Country Skiing and Indoor Cycling on Cardiorespiratory and Metabolic Response. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Feb 23;15(1):184-95. PMID: 26957942; PMCID: PMC4763839.
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