Let’s get physical: Keeping fit in the winter time.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 3/4/10] February’s behind us, but as the wise groundhog recently proclaimed, we shouldn’t expect an early spring. While I don’t put too much stock in the alleged meteorological abilities of a marmot, the latest bout of late winter snow seems to make his case.

If you’re like me, winter is a mixed bag of emotions. Early winter brings the excitement of the first snowfall, and the buzz of holiday spirit. But once January hits, that buzz has worn off; replaced by the sobering hangover of gray skies and dirty snow.

By February 2, Phil’s smug prognostication seems like a giant cosmic insult. If he sees his shadow, we’re condemned to six more weeks of winter. If not, well, get real, buddy; this is Vermont. Marmots.

So with spring almost around the corner, I’ve decided that it might be time to pull myself out of my winter hibernation, and get back into shape for the warmer months. Now, I’m a fairly active guy. In the summer, I run a few times a week, play tennis, even the occasional game of bocce. (OK, so the last one’s not that active, but at least it gets me outside, right?)

Moving inside, however, has always been a struggle. I start off strong in November, going to the gym three or four times a week. Unfortunately by January, I’ve all but given up completely. Part of my drop-off in attendance has to do with the resolutionistas – those idealistic folks who show up after the holidays with grand visions of getting back into shape before swimsuit season.

While I applaud anybody who is being proactive about their health, I know that I’ll never see most of these people after their free trial runs out. In the meantime, all they do is take up machines and ignore club etiquette. (Hey, bro, are you gonna wipe down that bench?) This overcrowding, in turn, results in my own derailed fitness routine. To be fair, if my ambition for personal fitness matched my ambition for blogging about Sarah Palin, I’d have a six-pack by now so I guess I really shouldn’t be throwing stones.

Nonetheless, March is here, and I’ve decided that it’s time to do something about my pale, Pillsbury physique that arrived when I traded treadmills for Bushmill’s. (On the plus side, my drinking arm is looking quite toned.) It’s time to head back to the gym.

As I put my quarter-year resolution into action, I decided to find out how other folks in Rutland like to keep fit and active during the winter. I sent a message out to my friends who, like me, are a fairly active group. Always the helpful bunch, their responses were sardonically bleak and overwhelmingly alcohol-related.

My friend, Jessie, won the prize for the most practical attempt at being healthy: “I choose to simply drink, and avoid eating to cut calories,” she says.

When pressed harder, they admitted that they occasionally do seek out more productive activities.

“I go to the gym, run, practice mixed martial arts,” Brian told me. There is also men’s league basketball, which some of my buddies play in all winter. And there was a near-unanimous mention of some type of outdoor sport like snowboarding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Not surprisingly, all these activities seemed to culminate in happy hour. While I can hardly fault my friends’ penchant for celebration, I thought it might be time to consult some professionals. I decided to reach out to our local fitness community to learn how other Rutlanders keep active in the wintertime.

First stop was Bill Kelley from Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center in Rutland. I asked him what his clients are looking for this time of year.

Kelley, who has worked in health clubs for 15 years, definitely sees the seasonal pattern in here in Vermont.

“Typically memberships go up starting in December, really peak from January to February and are steady until school lets out,” he says. Conversely, memberships drop for the summer months.

This year, however, Kelley has noticed through his work in the local health clubs that gym attendance is lower.

“But I expect that to change when people start trying on their swimsuits and realize how much weight they gained from being inactive.”

Kelley also mentions that this year is rather unique.

“People right now are incredibly depressed,” he said, noting that the rainy summer shorted us on sunlight, and sent us into winter at a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that this season has been unusually gray itself, and you’ve got a very gloomy situation.

“Even people who do not usually become affected by seasonal lack of sunlight are feeling it this year.”

For Kelley, motivation is key.

“It’s a vicious cycle; people feel depressed so they don’t exercise, and by not exercising, they don’t get out of the funk.”

So what’s his prescription?

“I am suggesting to a lot of people to start with something gentle like walking or basic yoga. Anything where they can get moving again is helpful.”

For a more traditional workout, Kelley recommends strength training with weights or cardio classes like kickboxing to get your “chemicals flowing again, and get out pent-up frustrations.”

Sometimes however, those frustrations need more than physical activity to be remedied. I caught up with local yoga instructor Stephanie Jones to see how yoga can help to improve people’s emotional health in the winter. While a number of people take yoga to improve strength and flexibility, Jones characterizes this as the side benefit to the real power of the practice.

“We live in a dark place, in the winter,” says Jones, who explains that yoga allows people to meditate and clear their minds, relieving stress and alleviating seasonal depression.

Jones teaches a number of classes at both Studio Bliss and the Dana Recreation Center, where she sees attendance wax and wane with the seasons. Like Kelley, the winter months always see a bump that tends to fade in the spring.

“A nice day kills class,” Jones says, recognizing that people prefer to be outside when the warm weather returns.

She invites me to an upcoming class, which I plan on adding into my renewed fitness routine. But as I wrap up this column, my phone has begun to buzz. It’s a text from my friends inviting me to happy hour. I guess my return to the gym can wait another day or two.

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