Exercise isn’t just for summer.

A couple of weekends ago most of Canada set its clocks back one hour, gaining some daylight in the mornings. Fall doesn’t end here, I’m glad to say, but for me the changing of the clocks always heralds the beauty and drama of winter. I begin to anticipate our 6 month companion’s return: the silent elegance of falling snow, frigid air slicing through ice-laden trees, cormorants flying low in long whipping lines over the crystalline blue of Lake Ontario. I’ve grown to love winter in Canada, but I’ve had to learn how to negotiate my right to enjoy it, to carry on doing the things I love to do, even when the snow is piled high. 

My first winter in Toronto left me dazed and frightened; eyes half closed against the driving snow, mouth covered, hands balled inside huge mittens in a vain attempt to preserve warmth. The instinct to hibernate struck me as entirely reasonable back then. But work and the need for groceries and the fact that I am not a polar bear made me venture out. I fell, often and hard. I learned to fear freezing rain more than the dentist. I folded in on myself: running, cycling, even walking were impossible. Going to the gym meant fish-tailing through snow-clogged streets, or stamping my way on to a slush-filled bus or streetcar. It was all too much. I wrapped myself in a blanket and waited for spring. When it finally came I was, of course, out of condition.  Gloriously unperturbed in my 30-something certitude that my body would serve me, I pulled on my running shoes, started to run along the ice-free sidewalks, and immediately injured my knee. I was out of action for ten weeks.

As the warm months flitted by and my next winter approached, I decided to plan ahead. I followed my own professional advice, and started to incorporate strengthening and balance exercises into my warm-up/warm-down routines.  I read up on how to walk safely on ice (seriously!).  I ponied up and got snow tires, decent boots, thermal underclothes. I bought a hat, then another. I wanted to be outside whenever the winter sun shone, but I thought about what I could do in my own home if the weather was atrocious; things like yoga, stretches, strengthening. I also looked at house cleaning and odd jobs in a new way. Everything had potential value as a means of staying active.  I was determined to maintain my strength and flexibility and mental well-being through the long darkness (as I thought of winter back in my early days in Canada.)

I learned from my clients too. These wise souls walk outdoors until the ice comes, and then walk in a mall, or use the treadmill or arm-ergometer in their buildings during the winter. Others set up their bikes on an indoor stand, or lift weights while they watch t.v. They just shrug and get on with it, and they do so with strong bones and good cardiorespiratory function.

These past fifteen years or so my relationship with winter has grown easy. I’m lucky enough to be able to walk: now I know how to walk safely on ice. I ski at the beach, but head home if the wind-chill bites too hard. My gym has a pool. I drive with confidence and care on roads narrowed by snow drifts. Oh, and my house is never cleaner than in winter.

R. Sian Owen PT