Fire and Ice: My Winter Exercise Program


March 4, 2019 by Jean

firewoodFor most of my life, my preferred form of exercise has been walking. I got into the walking habit early. We lived close enough to school to walk there, and my parents often sent me on errands that involved walking to the corner mailbox or to nearby stores. I have a vivid memory of walking with my mother when I was four to the railroad station in the center of the city where presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower was giving a campaign speech. As a six-year-old, I can remember scurrying to keep up with my older brother and his teenage friends on a Saturday morning as we walked to the public library about a mile from our house. When I was ten, our family moved from the rented apartment we had been living in for most of my life to a single-family home on the outskirts of the city. Things were pretty tight in the family car on moving day, so I volunteered to walk the two miles to the new house (with one of my friends for company). In high school, when after-school activities kept me from getting the school bus, I would walk the three miles home. During one summer of my weight-conscious adolescence, a friend and I had a weekly ritual of walking two miles to a local ice-cream shop, indulging in ice cream sundaes, and then walking the two miles home.

My love of walking has continue in adulthood. During my twenty-five years teaching at Gettysburg College, I walked to work on most days – even when I lived more than a mile from campus. During the good-weather months in Maine, I love getting out first thing in the morning to take a 2-4 mile walk around the back roads of my rural neighborhood.

But there are many months in Maine when the weather is not good for this kind of exercise; during winter, icy roads are not safe for walking. Fortunately, the Maine winter provides an alternative exercise program. The primary source of heat for my house in winter is a wood stove in the basement, with a chimney that comes up through the center of the original house. Wood heat is wonderfully cozy and comfortable, but it is also labor-intensive. The old joke is that wood warms you four times: once when you cut it, once when you split it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it. I don’t cut or split my own firewood, but I do stack it. This year, the firewood supplier delivered four cords from a big dump truck into my driveway in late September. (A cord is a stack of wood 4’x4’x8’, or 128 cubic feet.) For the next six weeks, I spent 6-8 hours a week loading split logs from the pile in my driveway into my wheelbarrow and then unloading them into the racks I use for stacking. Most of my wood gets stacked outside first, where it dries for anywhere from two months to more than a year before it gets moved indoors, first to storage racks in a basement room under my new addition and then to  racks near the wood stove. I normally have the wood stove burning from December through March; and during those months, I will need to refill the racks by the stove once every 5-7 days. Hauling and stacking wood provides a good aerobic and weight-bearing workout.

snowbanks & carOn days when I’m not moving wood, I pursue my alternate form of winter exercise, snow shoveling. We haven’t had any big winter snow storms (12” or more) this year. Instead, Mother Nature has nickeled and dimed us with frequent 3”-6” snow falls, most of which have ended with a period of rain followed by a flash freeze. The result has been an icy mess. Although my dirt road and driveway get plowed by a neighbor, I spend 2-4 hours shoveling after each snow, beginning with the front deck, front and back entries and walkways, and stairs down to the driveway, then digging my car out of the space where I tuck it away out of the path of the plow. I usually wait until the second day after a storm to shovel the walkways around the front of the house to the heat pump and then to shovel the back-garden walkway and back deck.

Snow shoveling not only provides a full-body workout that gets your heart rate up and exercises all the major muscle groups, it is also a great conditioning program. At the beginning of the season, shoveling the snow is mostly a matter of pushing the snow to the side with the shovel – easy, but the shoveling gets harder as the season advances. By January, each shovel-full of snow must be lifted and thrown over the top of the snowbank. By March, in the absence of significant melting between storms, those few inches here and few inches there have added up to many feet. The snowbanks are now taller than I am, and I’ve developed fancy moves with lots of muscle behind them to throw the snow up over my head and off to the other side of the icy walls of snow at the top of my driveway. It’s no longer possible for the plow to push back those hard-packed snow banks, which means that the amount of shoveling required to get my car out of its storm slot and to open up the top of the driveway enough to turn the car around keeps increasing.

Happily, it’s March and I can see spring on the horizon. When today’s snow ended about noon, the sun came out and the temperature shot up close to forty. It was a beautiful afternoon to be outside basking in the warmth of an almost-spring sun and listening to birds sing as I shoveled. Daylight Savings Time begins next weekend, and the spring equinox is just over two weeks away. As the spring sun gets stronger, the snow will begin to melt and crocuses will appear. Maybe by the end of the month, I’ll be able to go out for a walk.

8 thoughts on “Fire and Ice: My Winter Exercise Program

  1. Sue McPhee says:

    You are, indeed, a hearty soul! I tip my hat to you, my friend.
    I remember well that presidential campaign. Remind me when I see you to tell you a funny story from that time.
    I, too, loved walking from our place on Pearl Street to the library and back. It was my go-to place, me being a book lover, a story lover, a lover of the whole atmosphere of a library. The one-way trip was barely a mile but it seems so long, most likely because I was one to stop and linger wherever my curiosity got the better of me… store fronts… interesting yards… anything different from the norm that would catch my eye.
    Here’s to Spring!

    • Jean says:

      Sue, I loved my weekly trips to the library; but I also found them agonizing. We were only allowed to take out four books at a time, and they had to last a whole week. At a very young age, I got into the habit of reading the last pages of books as I browsed. I didn’t want to waste one of my precious four slots on a book that would disappoint me in the end! As a teenager, I discovered that the library also loaned out records. That was how I learned about classical music, and where I also indulged my passion for Broadway musicals. I’m still a public library enthusiast.

  2. Maureen Maigret says:

    Hi Jean
    I got tired just reading about all the wood stacking and hauling and snow shoveling.
    Your couch potato sister-in-law.

    • Jean says:

      LOL, Maureen, I don’t normally have any place I need to be in a hurry, so I do most of my shoveling at a pretty leisurely pace — usually 45 minutes at a time. If I put in 45 minutes of either shoveling or moving wood most days, it keeps me reasonably feet while I wait for the walking season to arrive — and it also supports my favorite activity, eating! 😉

  3. Your wintertime ‘exercise’ would do me in. I do the shoveling part of the program but stacking wood burning stove going would scare the heck out of me. Do you have any back up system for days when you might not be able to get down in the basement…say you sprained an ankle? One the plus side, all that work does keep you physically fit and if their’s a power outage in the area at least you’ll stay warm.

    One tip I’ll offer about shoveling that I learned from all my years of plowing snow: At the beginning of the season it’s really important to shovel wider than your sidewalks. (I do a shovel width on each side in the grass areas.) It sounds like more work but it’s actually less because as the season goes on you will not have to lift heavy snow over banks because you’ve created a landing place for the later season’s snow falls.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, My house has electric heat — baseboards in the original house and a heat pump in the new addition. That’s how I heat my house in the “shoulder seasons” of November and April, when the wood stove generates too much heat and makes the house too warm. I learned the value of having a wood stove in January of 1998 when Maine had a gigantic ice storm followed by frigid temperatures (sound familiar?) and almost everyone in the state lost power. With the wood stove going during the ten days we were without electricity, my house was cozy warm, I could cook food, and I could melt snow for water and heat water for washing.
      Thanks for the shoveling tip; I’ll try to remember it next year.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    I will think of you, shovelling snow, and stacking wood – when I hike in our mountains for the first time again tomorrow, after waiting for summer’s heat to fade, and autumn’s coolth and first rains to bring out the flowers.
    You are certainly MUCH fitter than I am!

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I’m thinking about you hiking in the mountains as I look out at our snowy landscape and wait not-very-patiently for my own walking season to begin.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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