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Cleveland experts share tips on staying active when it's hard to exercise outside

Snow-covered streets and sidewalks, like these in Lakewood, can make it difficult to get steps in during Northeast Ohio winters. Experts say finding a way to stay physically active can have a big impact on the winter blues. [Stephanie Czekalinski
Snow-covered streets and sidewalks, like these in Lakewood, can make it difficult to get steps in during Northeast Ohio winters. Experts say finding a way to stay physically active can have a big impact on the winter blues. [Stephanie Czekalinski

A few days each week, no matter the season, Shaker Heights resident Jason Carroll goes for a run.

“It takes a lot to stop me from running. I will run down to single digits, as long as I can get some traction on the street,” he said.

Carroll jogs around his neighborhood in Shaker to help clear his head during the workday. But when the sidewalks and streets are smothered in snow, this otherwise relaxing activity can become difficult and even dangerous, he said.

Shaker Heights resident Jason Carroll took a selfie after jogging on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. [Jason Carroll]

Although Shaker crews do a good job clearing the sidewalks, pathways can still be slushy and icy, he added. Most of his running takes place in the street.

“There have definitely been scenarios where it’s the middle of the day, snow is everywhere, there’s a lot of traffic out, there’s kids being dropped off at school, you’ve got bikes, you’ve got cars, you’ve got strollers and runners,” Carroll said. “For the most part, everyone is respectful, but you do get those impatient people in cars who are rushing.”

Carroll said he also has to watch out for ice when he runs. 

Cleveland-area doctors are already seeing an increase in people going to the ERfor injuries from falling on ice.

While you might want to stay indoors and curl up with a book in this type of weather, regular exercise can help beat the winter blues and cabin fever, said Katie Lawton, an exercise physiologist at Cleveland Clinic. Not only does it help people stay physically healthy, but it has a big impact on mental health, she said.

“This is when you see a little bit more people going through a little bit more depression, and part of it is because we’re being less active,” Lawton said. “To feel more consistency throughout the year, the exercise, I think, would help a lot.”

Step it up in malls, museums and even your living room

Eastlake resident Wendy Kertesz leads a local hiking group called Hike CLE. While some places like the Cleveland Metroparks and Cuyahoga Valley National Park have year-round trails, not all walkers and hikers are experienced with that kind of terrain, Kertesz said.

Group members often get creative in snowy conditions.

“If they can’t go for a walk around their neighborhood, they’ll look for options like going to the museum and walking around, like the art museum or the natural history museum,” Kertesz said. “That, for hikers, because of our pace, is a great substitute.”

Remember the mall walking craze? Museums and malls are great options for people looking to get their steps in when it’s difficult to step outside, Kertesz added.

Wendy Kertesz of Hike CLE enjoys hiking all year round. If trails aren't cleared, Kertesz recommends walking in museums or malls. [Wendy Kertesz]

But if the roads are bad and it’s safer to stay in, some people rely on home workouts.

Lawton at Cleveland Clinic recommends using workout videos on free websites like YouTube for at-home exercise. There are even workouts where you walk in place, she said.

“They can be fun. They say you can walk two miles, I’m not sure that it’s actually that kind of distance, but the intensity can be there, especially if you push yourself,” Lawton said.

The workouts also incorporate high knees, arm swings and jumping jacks to help spike the heart rate, she added.

On days when you are stuck indoors, Lawton suggests prioritizing cardio and strength training rather than counting your steps.

“Not all steps are created equal,” she said. “Not all steps are for cardiovascular exercise. You can get 10,000 steps doing chores around the house, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you got any cardiovascular exercise in.”

You do not need equipment to build your strength, she added. Many people use common household items – like lifting a heavy backpack, or even cans of soup, she said.

Kertesz, the avid hiker in Eastlake, has lifted gallon water jugs on days when she can’t get outside.

“Days that you’re trapped, in regards to hiking … are days to do more strength training at home,” she said. “A gallon jug of water weighs eight pounds, so I would do curls and stuff with them.”

Beating the winter blues

Staying active doesn’t always mean high-intensity workouts.

Dawn M. Rivers, founder and CEO of Daybreak Yoga in Bedford, created a series of videos for her clients to use during this winter weather to encourage them to just keep their bodies moving.

“As the weather changes, our bodies change. When it’s cold outside, we tend to be tenser. Our muscles, they contract. So you want to stretch to elongate the muscles so the lymphatic fluid can flush and move,” Rivers said. “We do those kind of things because it’s functional, and it’s for life. So it’s not just like, ‘oh I want to stay active’ – [it's] I want to stay alive.”

Dawn M. Rivers, founder and CEO of Daybreak Yoga in Bedford, created virtual yoga videos for clients to use during the winter weather. [Dawn M. Rivers / Daybreak Yoga]

There are plenty of virtual yoga and stretching workouts offered by local studios such as Daybreak, as well as on YouTube, she added.

Low impact movements can get the blood circulating and clear your head – which is especially helpful for the restlessness you might feel from being cooped up inside, Rivers said.

Once the snow stops and you can safely get outside, the winter is a great time to take advantage of sweat-inducing activities you can only access this time of year, like cross country skiing and snowshoeing, Kertesz said.

And of course, there’s always hiking.

“I will go and hike the same trail all year round. I just love watching the change in nature,” Kertesz said. “That’s another big reason to get out – because it’s just so – after a first snow, or a fresh snow, it is so quiet, it is just absolutely breathtaking.”

Carroll in Shaker Heights feels the same way about a winter run around the block.

“Anyone that’s feeling a little blue or just like you’re in a rut or the day is dragging, even when it’s freezing out, get the appropriate clothing on and get the heck outside. It is just so good for your disposition and outlook,” Carroll said.

For outdoor activities, Kertesz recommends dressing in plenty of layers, wearing shoes with good traction and bringing along a walking stick. It is also a good idea to bring a small first aid kit, as people may be more prone to injuries hiking in the snow and ice, she added.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.