10 No-Excuse Reasons to Exercise in Michigan

Winter is a season, not a prison sentence. In Michigan, opportunities to get out and get fit exist in abundance all year long
Skiers, snowshoe enthusiasts, and hikers can get a workout at Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville.

The dormant season in Michigan loves to loiter. Most of the time, it hangs around for at least five months. We’ll see sunshine in April — if we’re lucky. That’s a particularly long stretch for outdoor enthusiasts to hibernate, hole up in a basement, or establish residency at an indoor gym. So don’t. There’s no reason to squander that sweat equity you built up during the summer. Winter is a season, not a prison sentence. In Michigan, opportunities to get out and get fit exist in abundance all year long. You may have to drive to get to your workout destination, but it’s the result that counts.

1. See Detroit cityscapes:

Expose yourself to something new (or in some cases, something antique) as you walk or run in and around Detroit’s unique urban backdrops. If you’re up for rubbing elbows while you exercise, try zigzagging the Eastern Market, a 43-acre, year-round sidewalk sale. It’s especially vibrant on Saturdays, when an average of 45,000 customers converge to buy everything from fresh produce and exotic spices to prime cuts of beef. On off days, there’s plenty of parking, but stay clear of some eateries, including the calorie-heavy Roma Café. The market is located between Mack, Gratiot and I-75. For a more urban venue, take your Nikes on a date to Midtown and walk Cass Avenue or Woodward south from Wayne State University. The coffee shops and art galleries in this part of town are powerful temptations, especially in the cold, when the aroma of Arabica beans is irresistible.

Walk or run along the river from Cobo Hall to Lake St. Clair and take in the industrial majesty of the dueling Detroit-Windsor skylines. The pathway is a work in progress, and soon it will span the three- and-a-half mile Detroit River vista from Joe Louis Arena to the MacArthur Bridge leading to and from Belle Isle. For updates, visit detroitriverfront.org.

The spectacle of artist Lowell Boileau’s Fabulous Detroit Ruins is best saved for one of the hallmark gray days of Michigan’s winter. Bleak skies are the perfect backdrop for the drama of a do-it-yourself walking or running tour of the remains of the city’s once-thriving industrial giants. Not only will you get a cardio workout, you’ll appreciate the Motor City’s renaissance as never before. More info at detroityes.com.

2. Do Detroit’s historic districts and neighborhoods:

You could walk or run in a different neighborhood or historic district in Detroit for a month and still not see them all. The city is an architectural anthology of unique and noteworthy homes, most of which are clustered into enclaves that are easily walkable.

Palmer Woods, located directly west of Woodward and north of Palmer Park, is one such jewel. The celebrated residences in this district were built during the early 20th century by such distinguished architects as Frank Lloyd Wright, a pioneer of the Craftsman architectural style, and Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the modernistic but ill-fated World Trade Center. Other prominent promenades include the wealthy neighborhoods of Sherwood Forest and Green Acres and, on the east side, the inimitable Indian Village, which local luminaries such as Edsel Ford once called home.

By anyone’s count, there are more than 100 neighborhoods in the Motor City in which you can indulge your winter wanderlust. For a map, visit cityscapedetroit.org.

3. Visit the ’burbs:

So you feel swallowed by the big city but don’t want to spend your winter wandering the wilderness and woods? You need look no farther than the suburbs. All manner of downtown areas are flourishing, and their proprietors are particularly punctual about keeping the snow, sleet, and ice off their city sidewalks and streets. Spend the winter power-walking Plymouth, Milford, or Romeo. “Art-walk” Northville’s “First Fridays” street celebrations, or strut the streets of chic and sophisticated places like Birmingham. Have a hankering for someplace with an edge? Give pedestrian-friendly cities like Royal Oak or Ann Arbor a whirl. So many towns, so many personalities.

4. Metroparks and beyond:

Look to Michigan’s Metroparks to test your winter exercise acumen. For the price of a season pass ($20 per vehicle), you can continue your relationship with nature long after the leaves have fallen. The parks, resplendent in their summer greenery, are just as striking in the austere shimmer of winter, particularly from the perspective of a cross-country ski trail or a snowshoe trek. As family outings and exercise go, it doesn’t get much more economical than cross-country. Equipment rental is less than $10 a person (less than $5 for groups). Parks with trails include Hudson Mills, Huron Meadows, Indian Springs, Kensington, Lake Erie, Metro Beach, Stony Creek, and Willow. Hint: Call ahead for snow conditions.

Snowshoe enthusiasts should note that trails.com people have named Kensington Metropark the second-best venue for shoeing in the state (first place went to Giant Pines Loop in the U.P.). The sport, compared by some to “walking on feathers” is growing in popularity, in large part because of the development of lighter, more durable shoes. The modern versions, framed in aluminum or plastic, bear little resemblance to their clunky wooden ancestors (justifiably reassigned to wall-art duty). More info at metroparks.com.

Other walking and hiking places are located in the dozens of state parks dotting the metropolitan area, as well as on state trail systems, which are especially abundant in Oakland County. For links to the county’s trail locations and maps, visit, oakgov.com/parksrec.

5. ‘Zoo it’ in the winter:

Never seen a snow monkey in a hot tub? Now’s your chance. The Detroit Zoo is jumpin’ all year. Many of the animals are at their most entertaining in the winter, and you’ll get a workout, too. The main trail is easily divided into one- and two-mile routes. To tackle the longer distance, follow the path along the zoo’s periphery. Continue via the prairie dog exhibit and the Asian wild horses (particularly perky in the off-season) and on to the main entrance. To put in a mile, just stay to the zoo’s interior, and circle the Arctic Ring of Life. If this becomes your weekly walk, save money by becoming a Friend of the Zoo. More info at detroitzoo.org or 248-398-0900.

6. Start training:

Just because you don’t have Olympic aspirations doesn’t mean you can’t train for — and run — a road race. On any given Saturday or Sunday in Michigan, it’s likely that dozens, hundreds, or sometimes even thousands of runners are burning calories en masse. Often they’re raising money for charity while they’re at it. And they don’t run scared in winter, either. Some races even capitalize on it — the Freeze Your Fanny 5k in Bay City — for example, just wouldn’t play as well in July as it does in January.

There’s also the Portland Winter Run, billed as the “favorite small race in the mid-Michigan area,” and the Shamrock 5k Run, Rock and Roll held on St. Patrick’s Day on the campus of Michigan State University (March 17 is, more often than not, still chilly in Michigan). Should you get hooked on a runner’s high, put your winter practice to work and train for the big one: the Detroit Free Press Flagstar Bank Marathon, held usually on the third weekend of October. Truth be told, the event is a great street party, but it’s most gratifying when you’re on the inside track, participating in the 26-mile race, the half-marathon, the five-person relay, or the 5k Fun Run and Fitness Walk.

Beyond the great burn you’ll get from all the exercise, you’ll be able to brag that you participated in the only race in the world that crosses an international border twice. The Web site freepmarathon.com has details and training guides that can be downloaded for every event. Info about other road races is available at runmichigan.com.

7. Go downhill:

Be happy it’s winter with one of the thousands of downhill enthusiasts who live for the season. The roar of the snowmaking machines and the squeal of the chairlift is music to their frost-nipped ears. Once the temperature cooperates, you can set foot on a decent ski hill in less than an hour from just about anywhere in metro Detroit. Between Mount Holly, Pine Knob, Alpine, and Brighton there are 83 runs, 38 lifts, and 31 rope tows. Contrary to what you may hear, skiing and boarding don’t have to be expensive. You can spend a day on any of these slopes for far less than what it costs to play 18 holes of golf at most courses and, considering most courses require carts, you’ll get more exercise for your money as well.

Beginners get a lift at Alpine and Pine Knob, where additional conveyers have been added in the bunny hill areas.

Mount Holly celebrates its 50th birthday with special events (check skimtholly.com for updates) and two new snow guns. Among the Web sites with slope reports and information is goskimichigan.com.

8. Skate the pounds off:

Ice doesn’t have to be the wicked witch of the winter; in fact, if you approach it on skates, it can actually be liberating. There’s nothing quite like gliding  (or wobbling) your way across a glistening ice rink, especially when it’s outdoors. Not only is ice skating terrific aerobic exercise, it’s great for toning up those winter-weary legs as well. Among the area outdoor venues where you can test your blades:

Wayne County: Belle Isle, Clark Park Ice Rink (rentals available), Grosse Pointe Park reflecting pond (no hockey, please), Hart Plaza and Campus Martius Park (admission is $7 for adults; rentals extra).

Oakland County: Rinks regularly appear at Dickinson, Elks and Meininger Parks in Royal Oak; at Lions Club Park, Sunset Park, Ambassador Park (hockey only), Rosie’s Park in Madison Heights, and in Beverly Park in Beverly Hills.

Macomb County: Elmwood School, Frederick Playfield and Wahby Park in St. Clair Shores.

9: Trek up north:

We have artist David Barr to thank for the Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville (michlegacyartpark.org). Lined with more than 35 sculptures made from materials of nature that reflect and interpret Michigan, there are also poetry stones, and an amphitheater on the trail, which meanders up and around a densely wooded 30-acre park. In case of snow, bring your hiking boots, snowshoes, or cross-country skis and plan to spend at least half a day. The adventure and exercise is well worth the $3 admission ($10 per family).

In addition to the wine, food, and fun that have long been associated with Traverse City, there’s a lesser-known treasure that’s worth exploring. The Traverse Area Recreational Trail (known as TART) pathway system that meanders in and out of the city is a gem in any season, but it’s especially delightful in winter. Thanks to the hardworking volunteers who keep the trails groomed, you can snowshoe, hike, or cross-country ski from Suttons Bay to Acme. It won’t cost you a dime, but feel free to feed the donation boxes on the paths. Check out traversetrails.com.

10. Play in your own back yard:

You may not burn anything but rubber (or plastic) when you sled downhill, but the walk uphill is guaranteed to zap a few calories. Trudging up the hill with a toddler in tow gets you extra points. We can thank glaciers for the abundance of curves gracing our fair state, but if you happen to live in a neighborhood that looks as if it’s carved out of Kansas, don’t despair: Sled hills are located at Kensington, Lake Erie, Stony Creek, and Willow Metroparks.

If sledding isn’t your bag, but the kids are in the mood to frolic, get out and play. Playing counts as exercise, especially when you do it in snow, and it’s free. Plus, no Michigan winter is complete without the requisite snowball fight.

There, now. Isn’t the old man’s grip already feeling more like an embrace?