Eighty-two years old and seven months removed from open-heart surgery, Dick Kendall stood balanced on one foot inside of the White Pass Nordic Center yurt.
He smiled broadly as he gave me pointers on cross-country skiing, the sport he credits for his good health.
“It is the best sport if you want to stay in shape,” said Kendall, who roller skis the streets near his Naches home when there’s not enough snow for skiing.
Kendall says he was born with narrow arteries around his heart that should have landed him on an operating table two decades ago. His siblings all had the same congenital anomaly and had open-heart surgeries in their early 60s.
Kendall had his surgery last summer and says doctors told him the fitness level he’s maintained from years of cross country skiing is the reason he was able to put off the surgery for so long.
It’s also the reason he’s already back on the snow, teaching others how to ski.
I don’t spend much time on cross-country skis, but, as I scan the yurt I can’t help but think, maybe I should.
The handful of people I see here are fit.
The scene validates what I’ve always believed about the sport: Cross-country skiing is a perfect exercise.
I bounce this assertion off Kendall and Rich Brooks, the Nordic center’s director. They both nod in agreement.
“It really could be the perfect sport,” Brooks said.
Why? Well, for starters there aren’t many faster ways to burn calories.
According to healthstatus.com, a 170-pound person burns 877 calories per hour cross-country skiing.
By comparison, they’d burn 775 calories running 6 mph for an hour and 816 calories on a bike for an hour at 14-16 mph.
“It is a great workout and more and more people are realizing that,” Brooks said. “We get a lot of cyclists that come up here to ski because it’s a great way to workout in the winter.”
Cross-country skiing burns more calories that downhill skiing, too.
Healthstatus.com says a downhiller burns 673 calories an hour. However, that rate does not account for all the time those skiers spend sitting on the chairlift burning just 82 calories per hour.
“Cross-country skiing is also a low-impact sport,” said Brooks, a supremely fit 47-year-old who’s also an avid cyclist. “I’d say it is better than running because you don’t get that jarring. ... It’s easy on the joints.”
The two forms of cross-country skiing offer two different workouts, Brooks said.
In classic skiing, your skis are almost always parallel unless forming a wedge or half wedge to control your speed.
In skate or freestyle skiing, skiers use similar movements as ice skaters.
Brooks estimates that skate skiers “go about a third faster and spend a third more energy” than classic cross-country skiers.
Skate skiing might be an even better workout, but it’s also a more complicated technique.
When Brooks, Kendall and I hit the trail, they recommended I stick to classic in order to increase my odds of staying upright.
I’d been on classic skis enough to feel comfortable, but as we started out on the loop around White Pass Lake, I noticed I’d have no chance of keeping up with Brooks. He was skating and effortlessly outdistanced me as I huffed and puffed my way along the trail.
Many of my friends who downhill ski refuse to try cross-country skiing because it looks like just a slog through the snow.
It definitely requires effort but more on par with a bicycle ride, a swim or a good hike. You’re in control of how hard you work.
While I was trying in vain to keep up with Brooks I was breathing heavily, but I hardly noticed as I took in my surroundings. Evergreens with their branches weighed down by snow. The frozen lake. The absence of noise other than my skis sliding through the groomed tracks.
It’s all too peaceful to feel like hard work.
And this, when it comes to exercise, is another reason Brooks describes cross-country skiing as perfect.
“You’re getting this great workout in God’s country,” Brooks said. “It’s such a release for people from their everyday lives.
“That’s what we love. When people leave smiling, and almost all of them do, that’s job satisfaction.”
Plus, he added, nodding in Kendall’s direction, “look what it does for longevity.”