54: Exercise in the Arctic

Sports, exercise, keeping fit, it’s pretty important for us. Many of us have pretty stationary lifestyles nowadays, as lunch doesn’t involve having to run, hunt and catch something, but our bodies still need this level of movement to keep us healthy and ticking over well. To make moving more fun, many do sports, adding a bit of competitiveness as well as a desire to improve into the mix. You may think in the Arctic, with long dark winters and freezing temperatures everyone would just huddle indoors with cocoa and a hot blanket. However, they have their ways of keeping fit too. This week we will be explore the mental benefits of some indoor sports, the addiction to some outdoor sports and the functional background to some traditional Native sports in the Arctic. Hope you enjoy!

The Alaskan High Kick on the left and One Hand Reach on the right. Sadly we will not be exploring these sports in this article, but I had to include photos as, frankly, they look badass (Pictures: Alaska Sports Hall)


Whilst you might struggle to surf or do beach volleyball, technically you can do most sports in the Arctic if you have an indoor space. If your area involves months of no sunlight and crushingly cold temperatures, it really makes sense to do sports in warmed, lit, indoor spaces. In Alaska basketball is very popular, whilst in Greenland handball is a well-loved sport, with the Greenlandic men’s team being in the world top 20 in 2001.

In northern Canada one of the favoured sports is futsal, a form of indoor football/soccer. People often comment on how youth from the north are really talented at this sport, and there’s good reason. Sure, it’s nice to exercise but the sport is so much more than that for many. Rural northern communities in Canada often have disproportionately high unemployment, social issues and ultimately suicide rates. Many youths say sport is their refuge. When they play futsal they can forget about everything else that is going on, they learn self-discipline, self-improvement and with their team they develop a family. It’s healthy, and fun, but it’s also an arena to escape, to focus, find purpose and to build often lasting connections with their teammates.

It’s not always easy, flights to tournaments in different parts of the country can cost tens of thousands of dollars, due to the remote locations of some communities, so raising these kinds of funds can really become a community effort too. This is just a brief overview, but at the bottom there is attached an 8 minute documentary about futsal in Northern Canada which goes into it better. Futsal is also not as recent an addition to the Arctic sports repertoire as you might think- at least for many in northern Canada. The northern lights are said to be a group of Inuit playing football together with the skull of a walrus, a story that has been within the area for generations.

Futsal match in Whitehorse, Canada, in 2018 (Picture: Vince Fedoroff)


The list of indoor sports done in the Arctic goes on- gymnastics, table tennis etc, really many things you’d do anywhere else in the world. However, one of the benefits of being in the Arctic is it’s easier to do some of the more Arctic-y sports. One of the classics is ice hockey. Thanks to the abundance of ice, it isn’t always necessary to go to a pricey rink to learn how to skate, and once people have that skill under their belt, taking it to the next step by hitting a puck around is natural. Even for those who can’t skate but get used to sliding around on ice, there’s broomball. This is essentially hockey but without skates, using brooms instead of sticks and a ball instead of a puck. Then of course there is skiing and snowboarding. Skiing, especially in northern Europe has been done for centuries, not as a sport but as a genuine means of transport. Before the engine it was one of the quickest ways to travel across the landscape, being used by everyone from explorers, to reindeer herders, to people wanting to go visit their nan over the hill.

Naturally, many have become skilled at it and today it is incredibly popular as a sport, whether cross country, downhill, or even as part of a biathlon (this being skiing and shooting as a sport). In fact many love the sport so much that they do it in the snowless months too. This is either in the more laid back Nordic walking, where one walks with walking sticks almost imitating the movement of cross country skis, or by doing roller skiing which is, well, exactly like it sounds- going on skis with wheels.

Another great example is the sport of dog mushing, but seeing as musher Jeff King gave such a great account of it in plog ‘51: Dog Mushing with Jeff King‘, I won’t go into that one here.

Roller skiing in Norway- a sport for those who just can’t wait for winter to come back around

Local Sports

Each year in the Arctic there is held the Arctic Winter Games. This includes the classic skiing, futsal, biathlons and such like. However, it also includes some more unique types events too. The first set we’ll explore here fall under the category of the Dene Games, games played by various indigenous groups in Alaska and Canada. These games include:

Snow Snake- A stick is thrown low and slides across the ground. The object is to get your stick to slide as far as possible. This improves accuracy, power and skill, essential in the past as these sticks used to have spears on the end and be used to catch small game. Think of it as a sort of ground-javelin.

Stick Pull- First you get a smooth stick of around 25 cm in length, tapering slightly at each end, which is greased up. Two players stand with their feet shoulder width apart, one player facing forward and one backward. Their right feet touch. Right hands are extended straight down and each grips one end of the stick. The aim of the game is to either pull the stick out of the opponent’s hand, or to pull the stick back beyond their waist for a minimum of 2 seconds. However, the players cannot twist or jerk the stick, and they cannot bend their arm or even lean their body forward or side to side. This game often used to be played at a feast after a good hunt had taken place, and bear grease was often used. It is also partly to help train the ability to catch slippery fish.

Pole Push- Like a tug of war in reverse. Two teams of four play against each other, each holding on to opposite ends of a 6.1 m log. They stand within a circle, and the aim is to push the other team and the middle of the pole outside of the circle. The pole can’t be lifted above the shoulders or below the waist when pushing. The winning team is the best of three. The game is a general strength and endurance exercise, though it is said in some communities it also used to be played to honour a member of the community who passed away.

Snow snake on the left (Picture: Colin Connors), and the stick pull being won on the right.

Those are just a few examples of sports in the Dene Games. Then we have Arctic Sports from Alaska. These sports require a lot of strength, nerve and agility, including:

Two Foot High Kick- A ball is suspended in the air. The player must start with both feet on the ground, jump and touch the ball with both feet, and then land again on both feet without falling. The game historically was used to signal a successful whale hunt, with a messenger running back to the village and kicking both feet in the air to signal to the villagers that their help would be needed to process the whale. The men’s record in ball height is 2.64 m and the women’s 1.98 m. Some say this is the most difficult Arctic sport.

Kneel Jump- Players start kneeling with their feet and knees on the ground. Then in one fluid movement then must jump from their kneeling position forward and land on their feet without toppling over. The background of this sport was that if someone was kneeling and e.g. butchering an animal, and a predator sneaked up behind them, they needed to be able to get up quickly to protect themselves.

Knuckle Hop- The players get into a position resting on their knuckles with their elbows at their side and their legs straight, like a low plank on knuckles. They then hop forward in this position, landing each time again on their knuckles and toes. There are two different ways of playing this sport. Either the players compete directly against each other to knuckle hop the fastest to the end of a course, or it is a game of endurance to see who can hop the furthest. The second game is not so much about strength, though that is required, but more about who can withstand the pain the longest. Bruised and bleeding knuckles are not uncommon in this sport! The current distance record is 61.16 m. The sport is also known as the seal hop as it mimics the movement of seals on ice.

Alice Neese tying with the world record of two foot high kick in 2011 on the left (Picture: Roy Neese). On the right the knuckle hop or seal hop (Picture: Patrick J. Endres/AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Sports are generally a great way to keep fit as well as develop self-discipline, focus and connection with others, both in the Arctic and outside. The Arctic is also home to some unique Arctic sports such as the pole pull and two foot high kick. Not only do these activities increase strength and endurance, but many have also been really functional forms of exercise, helping train and prepare people to hunt fish, escape predators and develop the ability to withstand pain, to keep going in their sometimes harsh environment. And of course they’re done for fun! There are countless others we haven’t managed to explore, from reindeer racing to snowshoe racing. However, all this just shows you don’t need to be somewhere warm and sunny to keep fit!

For more info:

Canadian Futsal Documentary:

Arctic Winter Games Website: https://awg2020.org/sports/

In depth info on the Dene Games with videos: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/index.php/en/article/dene-games

Native Youth Olympics, the official youth version of the Arctic Sports. Here you can find more info on those sports: https://citci.org/partnerships-events/nyo-games/

Music: kongano.com

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