Snowshoeing takes heart

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      You can’t exactly call Ean Jackson a wuss. The Vancouver business developer is an avid runner, but we’re not talking light jogs around the seawall. We’re not even talking marathons. No, the father of two prefers more hard-core outings known as “ultras”, courses that are even longer than a marathon’s mere 42 kilometres. Such gruelling races might be the ultimate physical test, but it’s a seemingly pleasant winter sport that Jackson says gives him his sweatiest workout.

      “Snowshoeing is way better than running,” Jackson says in a phone interview. “You’re lifting something heavier than a running shoe”¦and the effort required is greater. For the same distance and terrain, the workout is far superior.”

      There are other things Jackson loves about the activity: for one, it allows him to access the backcountry, where he’s taken his kids winter camping. Then there is the thrill of it.

      “I like to do back flips off cliffs,” says Jackson, who’s a board member of Club Fat Ass, a local group that offers running, hiking, cycling, and other events for active people as interested in partying as in playing outdoors. (It hosts the Vancouver New Year’s Day Fat Ass 50 Run—that’s 50 as in kilometres—and the Freeze Your Fat Ass Swim.) “When you leap into two metres of light, dry powder, it’s like jumping out your second-floor window into a two-metre pile of duvets. It’s thrilling and it’s wonderful.”

      Granted, Jackson’s probably not familiar with the term leisurely pace. But even for those who take a more casual approach to mountain adventures, there’s no denying the fitness factor of aerobic winter sports like snowshoeing.

      Not to be confused with “aerobics”, which has become synonymous with gym bunnies bouncing around in a class set to bad house music, aerobic exercise relies on the body’s consumption of oxygen. By definition, it involves the repetitive use of the body’s large muscle groups; it increases the heart rate and it improves cardiorespiratory endurance.

      The health benefits of aerobic exercise such as snowshoeing are tremendous. According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, aerobic exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer. It reduces high blood pressure, helps controls blood sugar, and boosts levels of high-density lipoprotein, the “good” cholesterol, while lowering low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol. It also strengthens the heart, making it pump blood more efficiently. As the heart beats faster, lung capacity increases. With a healthy diet, aerobic exercise also helps with weight loss. And it can diminish symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.

      An hour of snowshoeing burns more than 500 calories, based on a body weight of 150 pounds, according to

      Kurt Turchan, the founder of—a database of almost 10,000 Canadian trails for hiking, mountain biking, climbing, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, and snowshoeing—started snowshoeing as a child on old wooden snowshoes that his father gave him.

      “A cousin and I would take the bus during March break to the local woods and spend all day wandering,” the Vancouver resident tells the Straight. He’s since happily switched over to lightweight aluminum snowshoes and is just as hooked as when he was a kid.

      “It’s like a mini-holiday,” says Turchan, who usually heads out for a couple of hours. “Nothing beats getting a sunny afternoon with views of clear, blue sky. The snow just makes everything so bright, even when it’s not sunny.”

      For all its pleasantness, the sport makes Turchan sweat.

      “It’s a workout that generates a lot of heat, so I dress in layers but I still burn up. Afterwards, I am usually spent, in a good way.

      “Snowshoeing is something everyone can do,” he adds. “It’s very social, and”¦you can get a group of friends together and just go—as long as you’re safe and stay away from avalanche zones and tree wells.”

      The same could be said of cross-country skiing, another butt-busting winter sport.

      Dirk Rohde started Nordic skiing about 25 years ago as part of an active outdoor lifestyle that included backpacking, mountaineering, and winter camping. In the early ’90s he joined the Hollyburn Jackrabbit Club, a skiing organization for families that offers skills-development programs, a teens’ club, and races.

      “Cross-country skiing is one of the best aerobic, full-body workouts available,” says Rohde, noting that it works the upper and lower body as well as the core.

      Cross-country skiing simultaneously uses the body’s “pushing” and “pulling” muscles, and, unlike running-based activities, there’s less strain on the feet, knees, and hips. Plus, it’s less likely than sports like basketball and football to result in pulled muscles or torn ligaments since it doesn’t require rapid changes of direction.

      An hour of brisk cross-country skiing burns more than 600 calories.

      “It can also be a very relaxing way to enjoy nature and exercise and to get out with friends or family,” Rohde says. “By ensuring that the kids have a good time and through meeting new friends in the club, we hope to build a lifelong love for skiing, the outdoors, and a healthy lifestyle. There’s a good feeling of accomplishment and salubrity after going for a ski.”