Christina Eyers, Ed.D., AT, ATC, is the Director of Athletic Training & Community Outreach with Henry Ford Sports Medicine.
With the winter Olympics kicking off, you might be wondering which (if any) winter sports are safe for you to try.
In addition to favorite pastimes like skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating, athletes in the winter Olympics are shining a light on lesser-known sports that are worth checking out if you're feeling adventurous. (Curling anyone?)
Breaking Down Winter Olympic Sports
Whether you prefer snow or ice, there are plenty of cold-weather activities that offer a heart-pumping workout — and you don't have to be an Olympic athlete to join in the fun. A bonus: Many of these activities are easy on your joints and offer cross-training benefits.
- Cross-country skiing. Cross-country skiing is a full-body, endurance pursuit similar to running. But since you're gliding through the snow, not pounding pavement, there's less stress and strain on your joints — and a lower risk of repetitive use injuries.
- Ice skating. Figure skating is among the most popular winter Olympic sports. It's also the oldest sport in the winter program. Even if you feel unsteady on ice skates (and what beginner doesn't?), taking an introductory lesson can help you glide safely while learning proper mechanics. Since falling is common for beginners, make sure you wear some extra padding and take your time as you master new maneuvers.
- Curling. A unique Olympic sport, curling is like shuffleboard on ice. While it may be one of the slower sports in the winter games, it's also a great game to play on the ice with your family.
- Skiing. Skiing is a fun activity for the whole family. But if you're an amateur skier, it's critical to be realistic about your abilities. Don't be afraid to take ski lessons to get the basics under your belt. A ski instructor not only gauges your skill level, but can also direct you to the slopes that are the best fit for your experience.
- Snowboarding. One of the newer Olympic sports on the circuit, snowboarding was first included at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. But since its introduction, snowboarding has become one of the most popular sports in the Games — and for winter recreation among nonathletes.
No matter which winter sports you choose, make sure you have appropriate equipment that fits. Winter sports gear can get pricey, but try secondhand stores or even rent equipment for weekend use. Just make sure to ask the experts for advice on things like length of skis, boots, bindings, figure skates or hockey skates. Most importantly, make sure to always wear a helmet for activities such as skiing and snowboarding (kids should wear helmets when ice skating too!).
Cold-Weather Sports Caveats
Winter sports can be engaging for everyone, no matter what their age or skill level. You can use the Olympics as inspiration or try one of the many non-Olympic sports that get your heart pumping during colder months. A few favorites:
► Sledding. Tubing and sledding require you to climb up the hill in order to ride your way down. Toboggan runs and sledding hills are a great way to enjoy local parks during the wintertime — and they're fun for the whole family.
► Snowshoeing. Like walking on sand, snowshoeing requires you to navigate uneven surfaces, which helps strengthen your leg and glute muscles.
► Hiking. If the weather is on the mild side, don't be afraid to get outdoors and explore. With newer materials and textiles, it's easier than ever to dress warmly and remove layers as you work your way up a hill or mountain.
Whatever winter activity you choose, keep in mind you’re not competing in the Olympics. If you’ve been mostly sedentary, it's important to start slow. Gradually increase your activity level and be sure to wear appropriate safety gear.
Playing sports is a great way for children of all ages to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It also builds confidence and teaches them valuable life lessons, like working as a team and the value of hard work. While it may be every sports fanatic’s dream to have their kid make it big time in the arena or on the diamond, sometimes pushing young athletes to be the best at a young age can lead to serious injuries that will take them out of the game altogether.
"Sports help with physical and psychological well-being," says Matthew Santa Barbara, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. "However, year-round participation in a single sport at a young age can lead to overuse injuries and mental burnout."
Nowadays, many kids will start playing one sport at a young age and continue to play that same sport year-round for years. This can be harmful to your child because his or her soft tissue and bone structures aren't fully developed. Furthermore, the pressures of year-round participation and focus on excelling, rather than enjoyment, can negatively affect a young athlete's mental health.
Basketball causes the most injuries among high schoolers, causing many visits to the emergency room each year for stressed and torn ankle ligaments. In baseball, the Tommy John surgery, a procedure to reconstruct torn ligaments in the elbow after overuse, has also been increasingly used to treat young athletes still in high school.
How To Prevent Sports Injuries
Preparing your children appropriately before a sports season begins and supporting them during the season is important. Dr. Santa Barbara offers four key pieces of advice to help your youth athletes avoid injury.
1. Don’t limit your child to one sport. Playing a variety of sports in different seasons is a great way to work different parts of the body. When your child gets older, they can make the transition to playing a single sport they are good at and enjoy.
2. Warm up. Make sure your child is properly warming up before they play any sport. Dynamic warmups--incorporating exercises that involve moving the body such as lunges, high knees and arm circles – are preferable to stretching alone.
3. Strengthen core muscles. Building up core strength takes pressure off joints in the arms and legs. It gives young athletes more momentum and can help improve their performance.
4. Abide by rest rules. Many schools and sports leagues have rules in place to limit how many teams kids are on or how often they play. Follow these to ensure your child is allowing time for their joints and muscles to recover from physical activity.
Children participating in a sport should never push through pain, and injuries should be promptly evaluated by a sports medicine physician. Physical injuries are often more obvious, while mental health issues due to sports participation can be more subtle. Symptoms such as fatigue and declining performance can be signs of burnout. In these situations, rest is also important.
"Sports should be fun for kids," says Dr. Santa Barbara. "Avoiding single-sports specialization at a young age keeps the focus on enjoyment while reducing the physical and psychological risks of year-round participation."
To find a sports medicine provider at Henry Ford Health, visit henryford.com/sportsmedicine or call 313-651-1969.
Matthew Santa Barbara, M.D., is a non-operative sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine in Detroit, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Henry Ford Medical Center - Columbus, Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township and Henry Ford Medical Center - Fairlane.