Alaska winters can be tough. Short, dark days and cold temperatures can cause a serious case of cabin fever. The season can trigger physical effects, too: Studies show too much time indoors can disrupt sleep cycles, causing anxiety and insomnia. And, according the Centers for Disease and Control, youth between the ages of six and 17 should receive at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. As a bonus, children and teens who are physically active in their youth are more likely to carry their good habits into adulthood and are at lower risk from suffering from cardiovascular diseases, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.
But don't fear. Despite the cold and dark, the Last Frontier is full of opportunities for winter recreation from getting your heart rate up during a ski on Anchorage's many trails to more leisurely strolls through the city's zoo. Whatever you choose, there are plenty of wintry family fun options to choose from.
Explore your local park – In Anchorage, Alaskans have access to 223 public parks. Want to get outside? Aim to visit a new one every day, says Erin Kirkland, the Alaska family travel author and publisher of AKontheGo.com. Many local parks include amenities like sledding hills or skating rinks, and play structures are just as accessible in the winter.
"Every neighborhood in Anchorage has a park somewhere close by," Kirkland said. "The thing about kids is as long as they're dressed appropriately, they can have at it."
Visit the Anchorage Park Foundation website for a complete listing of area parks, plus descriptions of facilities and equipment. Bonus: Playgrounds aren't as popular in the winter, so chances are good you'll have the place to yourself.
Sledding – Sure, all that hill climbing has cardiovascular benefits of its own, but for kids, sledding is just plain fun. Climb up the hill, slide down: It doesn't get much simpler than that.
In Anchorage, you can find prime sledding territory at Service High School, Kincaid Park and Russian Jack Park. Want something a little more thrilling? Try Arctic Valley. Make sure everyone's wearing plenty of layers, pack a thermos of hot chocolate, a sack lunch and you'll be set for a full day of high-speed winter thrills.
Go wildlife watching – You might feel like hibernating, but the animals at the Alaska Zoo and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center are still wide awake. Bundle up and take a walk on the wild side: The Alaska Zoo covers 25 acres on the Anchorage Hillside, and walking between the animal enclosures is a great way to exercise legs and lungs.
For a longer excursion, drive out to Portage to view big game at the AWCC, home to everything from musk oxen and moose to bears and wood bison. While the center has fewer visitors in the winter, the animals still come out to play, and visitors can experience an entirely new perspective. In the winter, the center offers another added perk: free kicksleds for visitor use.
"A lot of parents with smaller kids, they just bring sleds," Kirkland said.
What's better than watching wildlife from the back of a kicksled?
Skate, ski or snowshoe – Don't own a pair? Families can rent skates, cross-country skis and snowshoes at local shops like REI or Play It Again Sports. Anchorage alone is home to about 250 miles of trails and greenbelts, and with Chugach State Park in the backyard, it's hard to run out of trailheads.
Kirkland recommends exploring the boardwalks and bridges along Portage Valley's Trail of Blue Ice. Approximately five miles long, the trail makes for a picturesque day trip. Blanketed in snow, Portage Valley is more scenic than any gym, but snowshoeing brings some dramatic health benefits, building things like balance and strength. Plan on parking at the Moose Flats Day Use Area, Williwaw Fish Viewing Platform or the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. Dress in layers. Snacks and a thermos full of hot chocolate or tea will come in handy, too.
Looking for something closer to home? Lace up your skates at Westchester Lagoon, where the Municipality of Anchorage organizes frequent family skating events, or try out the public skating oval at Cuddy Family Midtown Park. An aerobic activity like walking or running, skating is a low-impact way to improve cardiovascular health, endurance, strength and flexibility. It doesn't hurt that it's also so much fun: Bring a chair to help any beginning skaters, or a puck and sticks (or brooms) for a pickup game of hockey.
North of Anchorage, in the heart of the beautiful Eagle River Valley, the Eagle River Nature Center is a prime location for winter hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The Rodak and Albert Loop trails are groomed for skiing in the winter, and the adjacent trails are great for exploring on foot.
Take a walk in the dark – A headlamp can help you see winter in a new light.
"Especially when our days are so short, it's really important not to let the darkness be a deterrent," Kirkland said.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, kids age 6 and older need at least an hour of physical activity daily. For adults, it's 30 minutes. So take a walk around the neighborhood, build a snowman, make a snow angel, dig a snow cave, plan a snowball fight: With a little artificial light, dark winter afternoons are your oyster.
"I think the main thing is don't feel like you have to go big," Kirkland said. "It's a habit. Everything's a habit."
Staying active in the outdoors all winter long can pay off in big ways — especially for young Alaskans.
"I guarantee you, parents are going to notice the difference," Kirkland said. "It's good for everybody."