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The struggle to stay healthy during winter

When the days get shorter and colder, many people get, well, lazier.

It happens to me every year.

The summer months wrap up and I don’t want to do anything. My winter laziness is a far cry from my active summer life.

Every morning before work, I’d wake up just as the sun started to rise and go mountain biking for an hour.

After work, I’d head out on the trails again or pack up the kayak and explore one of the many mine pits near Riverton and Crosby.

Weekends were packed with hiking, rollerblading, disc golf, and of course even more mountain biking and kayaking.

But then old man winter’s ugly face appears.

I noticed the change while mountain biking one morning before work early this fall.

A tree branch slapped me in the face as I sped through the winding trails of Boot Camp, a path off of Huntington-Feigh Mine Lake. It was darker than normal. I should have seen that branch.

I watched minutes of sunlight sliced from each day as winter neared. With each minute lost, I had less motivation to move.

“Winter is the absolute hardest time to maintain health,” said Amanda Weiss, exercise physiologist at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center (CRMC) in Crosby.

The experts agree, so I can’t be alone in this struggle.

I grew up in a long line of stubborn Norwegians. So I set out to stop my annual cold weather trend of gaining a few extra pounds.

What I found out: we all make this whole diet and exercise thing way harder than it needs to be. Just get up and move around. Go ahead and eat those chips — just don’t eat the whole bag in one sitting.

Common sense, right?

Apparently not.

Many people struggle with those simple concepts, said Brainerd YMCA Personal Trainer Anita Travica.

Travica said there are four components that every healthy lifestyle needs to include: Nutrition, cardiovascular, weight training and flexibility.

• Nutrition: The “common sense” element. Drink plenty of water and stay away from soda. “People get it,” Travica said. “They just need discipline. Most people know to pick an apple over a bag of chips.”

• Cardiovascular: Get your heart rate elevated for at least 30-40 minutes a day. Don’t have time? Do five or 10 minutes here and there. Work toward the goal of 30 minutes in a row, but don’t skip exercise all together if you don’t have the extra half-hour to spare. “Every little bit helps,” Travica said.

• Weight training: There’s no need for expensive gym equipment. For weights, just use soup cans, laundry detergent containers or set an empty milk jug on a scale and fill it with as much water as needed. Do two-three sets of 10-12 repetitions for each muscle group.

• Flexibility: The most neglected area, but very important. Popular fixes now are yoga and pilates.

The biggest misconception in exercise is that it needs to be high intensity. Not true, Weiss said. You burn the same number of calories whether you walk that mile or run it. It’s just the type of calories that differ. Walking burns fat calories, while running burns carbohydrate calories.

To lose weight, walk briskly, Weiss said. You should be able to finish two sentences without taking a breath.

Start with small goals, like walking two times a week. Build from there. With big goals, like walking every day all winter, it’s easy to get off track, Weiss said.

When someone like me goes from being very active in the summer to just about zero in the winter, that has effects on muscle composition, hormones and your mental/emotional state.

“Exercise does so much for the body,” Weiss said. “When you take it away, muscle mass and weight changes. It just all disintegrates.”

While I visited with Travica at the YMCA, she ran through a few exercises I could do at home.

First, she directed me to a large exercise ball. I have one of my own at home. They are pretty popular right now and can be found at a department store.

We ran through some strengthening moves with resistance bands. (Also popular and can be found next to the exercise balls at stores.)

Finally, I tried the ab straps. It’s an intimidating metal bar bolted to the wall with two looped straps hanging down. If I was in the gym alone, I would have passed this contraption up. But this time, I climbed up on a stool, stuck an arm in each strap and slowly lifted my legs to my chest. Well, I lifted them a few inches. Not nearly as far as Travica did when she demonstrated the move to me.

Ab straps can be tied on a sturdy bar at home, like in the garage or basement. It’s a good alternative to sit-ups, as it uses a lot more core muscles.

Exercise is just part of the equation when it comes to healthy living. Working out can only do so much if you top it off with a big, greasy burger and large milkshake.

I haven’t ordered a fast food burger or fries in about three years. My weakness is chocolate — I blame it on my genes. My mother can’t resist the sweet taste of chocolate. The same goes for her mother, and I can only assume the trend continues back hundreds of years with each lady in my bloodline.

Some people can have their weakness around the house and not binge on it, said Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center Registered Dietitian Teresa Farrell. Others, just can’t have certain things around, like herself with brownies.

The cold weather sends a wave of yearning for comfort foods, which means more hearty baking for many people.

Farrell offered a few cooking tips: use reduced-fat cheese or sour cream and substitute applesauce for half of the butter.

Heather Erickson, director of Clinical Nutrition at CRMC, suggests half your plate should consist of fruit and vegetables.

Watch plate sizes, too, she warns. Nowadays, plates are much bigger than they were years back. Filling up a plate of food could mean you’re getting more than one serving size of an item.

A balanced diet is vital, said Nate Laposky, Family Medicine physician at Essentia. That means eating healthy fats (like found in nuts), protein and whole grain in an ideal meal.

Limit the sugars you eat, as well.

Laposky says not to cut essential food groups out of your diet. That can do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, there’s no magical pill to take for that perfect body we see plastered in advertising. No fad diet will get you there and keep you there.

From what I’ve seen, it takes good ol’ hard work and dedication to be healthy.

After talking with these experts, I’ve gotten over the initial winter blues slump.

I wake up early every morning to run (OK, jog. But a very brisk jog) on the treadmill for an hour before work. At the end of the day, I get in another 30 minutes. On weekends or days off, I’ll snowshoe and take in all of the amazing beauty this region has to offer.

It took me a while to get inspired, but it finally happened. You just have to find that one thing that keeps you going.

Find what motivates you and get moving.

JESSICA LARSEN, staff writer, may be reached at or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at