Active in Winter

by Peter Friessen

Staying active during winter is hard in Montana. There doesn’t seem to be much to do in the cold, snowy weather that envelopes the state for half the year – unless you ski or snowboard.

Older Montanans especially may feel this pinch. As the weather gets chillier, soreness and dreariness can set in, making it seem difficult to get out and do anything.

The most important thing is to plan ahead, said Lynn Paul, a professor and food and nutrition specialist at Montana State University.

“The best thing to have is a specific plan of what you’re going to do when the bad weather comes,” Paul said.

This plan for staying active can look different for everyone, but Paul gave three physical fitness recommendations that are a great starting point for all.

The first recommendation is to do some sort of aerobic activity. Anything that can get the heart rate up a little bit counts, from walking around the gym in the morning, to riding a stationary bike every day.

The second recommendation is to use strength training exercises to keep muscle strength up.

“As women age, their strength reduces quite a bit, but it doesn’t have to,” Paul said.

Keeping strength up can be as simple as playing with grandkids or doing chores around the house. Or it can include taking a class, such as MSU Extension’s Strong Women class, which works with older women and men on strength conditioning.

The final recommendation is simple: Avoid inactivity. Paul said people who sit are much more likely to encounter health problems compared with people who have a small amount of exercise in their life.

Paul herself uses a desk that allows her to stand or sit on the job, which is a great option for those still working or who use a desk at home often.

These recommendations can be the first step to leading a more active lifestyle during the winter in Montana, though carrying them out can be a challenge.

The key part of the process is to make exercise a routine, Paul said, something like drinking coffee in the morning or brushing teeth. It’s an activity that happens every day.

Starting slow is important, Paul said. Don’t start with the hardest or most rigorous routine right away, start with something easy and fun.

“What we try to do is to get physical activity that you can work into your daily lifestyle,” Paul said.
If the exercise is too hard, it maybe works for a week or two before it’s given up because it’s not fun or doable, Paul said.

An easy exercise can become a habit much more quickly, like brushing teeth, that isn’t dreaded, but is just another activity. And the exercise can increase over time.

Scheduled fitness classes at a local senior center or recreation center is the most effective way to make exercising a routine, Paul said.

MSU Extension trains teachers to lead classes in their 50-plus offices around Montana, which offer many different programs for families, kids and seniors alike.

Odessa Eddie, exercise director for the Bozeman Senior Center, said the most rewarding part of exercise class is seeing participants grow in strength and happiness.

Eighteen participants in her strength training class were tested before the class and then again after six weeks. All of them had increased bone density.

“We have people who come in with walkers and canes and they don’t use them after six weeks,” Eddie said. “It’s very exciting to see that happen.”

Eddie’s “poster woman” is named Pearl, whose doctor recommended she start exercising. She came into the senior center with a walker and after six weeks or so she started using a cane. A few weeks later, she could walk without the cane and started volunteering in her spare time.

Participating in a scheduled class can help in all aspects of life, Paul said, encouraging members to suggest classes or activities to their teachers.

“It provides being able to socialize, get out of the house and a social support … and that is huge,” Paul said.

“All of these groups are like a little family,” Eddie said of her classes.

MSU Extension isn’t the only choice for exercise classes in the community, though they train many teachers who spread out around the state. Most senior centers offer exercise classes, as well the YMCA or local gyms.

If classes aren’t the right way to go, there are other options. Any place that allows for walking, like a mall or school gym, are great places to go out alone or with a friend, significant other or child and get some exercise.

Paul suggested finding a “buddy” who is also exercising regularly. Pairing up allows for encouragement and friendly competition, which can increase the sense of fun and routine.

“It’s enough of a challenge to help with the health,” Paul said, “but they also want to come back.”

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