Travel, big meals, and time crunches don't have to interfere with your fitness goals. Staying fit during the holidays is easier than you think, and it can even help you de-stress!
We’re smack dab in the middle of the mistletoe season now. Social obligations, shopping trips, office parties, family gatherings, and other festive events abound during this holiday time. Which means we are spending more time driving, flying, standing in line, and partying. Inevitably, this leaves less time to devote to our fitness goals.
On top of all that festiveness, many of us feel stress from our extra-busy schedules. That can lead us to overindulgence.
Even though I just painted a rather un-merry picture, I want to assure you that is possible to stay mobile and active during the holidays and not lose focus on your fitness goals.
So with that in mind, let's look at some strategies that can keep you moving and energized, and perhaps even add some extra fun and entertainment to help keep you not only merry and bright but fit!
9 strategies for staying fit during the holidays
1. Pre-load your movement
I mentioned this before in an article called Supercompensation: Why a Break in Your Training Is Necessary, which I wrote when I returned from traveling to Bermuda to report on a World Triathlon Series race. I knew well in advance that I wouldn’t have the time, gear, or perhaps even the inclination to continue with my normal fitness routine while I was away. Instead, I loaded myself before the break.
You don't have to be heading for a sunny beach to use this strategy, though. It’s a simple concept, and it’s easy to do any time you’re going to be pulled away from your usual fitness routine.
In the days leading up to the busiest part of your holiday season, simply do as much movement and exercise as you can muster.
As you know, fitness is actually built while you rest after a hard period of training. So if you know a period of rest is coming in the form of a holiday break, load yourself up by skipping some rest days. Do some back-to-back workout sessions, lift slightly heavier objects than usual, and push yourself a little harder knowing that you will be giving your body some restful care very soon.
2. Plan ahead
A friend recently told me that he had ‘lost his motivation to exercise.’ When I delved further, I realized that he was under that common misconception that when we fail to perform the desired action, it is due to a lack of motivation or willpower. But in reality, the issue was that he was relying on a vague goal of ‘exercise more’ instead of making a plan.
I told him to get out his smartphone and not only plan his dedicated exercise time, but to actually write it on his daily to-do list or calendar app. Since then, he has only missed one of his planned workout sessions (because his son was ill).
"Shoot Hoops at the community center at 5:15 pm on Tuesday" is much more actionable than "Get more exercise." Lack of motivation is not usually the problem; lack of planning is.
The same principle applies to holiday time. Don't leave your fitness routine up to chance! Make a plan by checking with your gym in advance to find out their holiday hours. If you count on walking or cycling to work as your major movement time, but the office is closed during the holiday, plan to do your shopping on foot instead.
Lack of motivation is not usually the problem; lack of planning is.
You can also set specific exercise goals that will get you moving early in the day before things get too busy. If you are traveling for the holiday, do an internet search for gyms, community centers, and pools near where you’re staying.
A little planning ahead will help you make sure you don’t get caught off-guard.
3. Don't be all-or-nothing
This is likely the most meaningful mindset you can embrace, not just at this time of the year but any time you find yourself thinking "I don't have to time exercise!"
Time is tight during the holidays, and that may mean you sincerely don't have time to do your regular 30-60 minute routine. For example, I am quite accustomed to walking 15 minutes to the gym, doing 30 minutes of something fun and heavy, and then walking 15 minutes home. That is 60 minutes that I likely won't have while visiting my mom, prepping for holiday festivities, and trying to be a super cool uncle. But that doesn't mean I will skip my movement practice altogether. I will simply do what I can with the time I have.
Here are a few things you can try.
- Do some short movement breaks throughout the day when you have five minutes. Burpees, jumping jacks, squat jumps, and other movements are great when you don't have much time but want to get your heart rate up.
- Turn chores into exercise. This can be as simple as walking to the store to buy the holiday meal ingredients. Or it can be more involved, like adding some extra challenges to shoveling the walk. (I like to alternate hands on the shovel and see how far I can throw the snow.)
- Turn outdoor fun into fitness. As I outlined in my article 11+ Winter Workouts to Stay Fit in Freezing Temps, it’s easy to take some regular outdoor winter activities and, by making small alterations, create a heck of a workout.
4. Move as much of your body as possible
There is a distinct similarity between both cardiovascular and strength training workouts—they both work better if they use your entire body.
Focus on multiple-joint exercises that activate many muscles at the same time. For the biggest bang for your limited-holiday-time buck, avoid exercises that target just one muscle group like bicep curls and instead focus on movements like Turkish Getups and Burpees.
Which leads nicely into my next tip!
5. Plan easy home workouts
Getting dressed to workout outside or getting yourself to the gym takes extra time that you likely don't have during the holidays. Focus on movement routines you can do at home. Perhaps even in your pajamas.
One of my favorite go-to workouts that I do when I am pressed for time and space is the Scientific 7-Minute Workout. But there are a ton of short workouts to choose from, and you can easily do them in your skivvies if need be.
6. Make food prep into a workout
If you happen to be the one responsible for holiday dinner, don't just prep all the food standing (or sitting) in the same position the entire time. Mix it up! Make your prep station dynamic.
This could mean putting your chopping board on the floor and kneeling. If you usually sit at the table to roll the cabbage rolls, try standing at the counter instead. If the weather permits, maybe you can even move some of the prep outside. Choose different levels and different locations to challenge your body and make it more fun.
You can also shun the modern devices that outsource the more active parts of food prep.
- Mash the potatoes with a masher or ricer instead of an electric mixer
- Roll the pie dough instead of using a store-bought dough
- Whip your cream by hand
- Set aside the electric carving knife and work those muscles in your hands, arms, and shoulders by using ye olde knife
Believe it or not, this all counts as very meaningful movement!
7. Ignore the pressure to be sedentary
You may experience some pressure from family or friends to take a break and put your feet up. While this is loving advice—we could all relax more—the idea that you need to be sedentary and overfed to truly relax is a myth.
The most relaxing activity in the world can be a long walk, an easy jog, a nice bike ride, a yoga session, and the list goes on. Don't be fooled into sitting on your butt. Movement is both invigorating and relaxing!
8. Avoid the couch after the Big Meal
Studies have shown that postprandial exercise (moving after a meal) may be an effective way to improve glucose control in individuals with Type 2 diabetes as well as folks with no blood sugar issues.
The most consistent benefits researchers have is from long-duration (45 minutes), moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. That sounds like a lovely post-meal walk to me. But resistance training appears to be an effective way to manage blood glucose as well. That sounds like some snow shoveling, snow fort building, or many other fun activities that challenge your muscles.
The researchers from a study from the Department of Exercise and Sport Science recommend that individuals focus on increasing energy expenditure after the largest meal of the day. So before you even start cleaning up the kitchen, take a walk.
9. Make it fun
If you have family around, especially children, making your exercise time fun and game-like can be just as effective as hitting the gym. Sledding, street hockey, skating, skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking are all fun- and movement-filled activities.
If it’s too hazardous outside for some of your family or guests, then play your usual indoor games, but play them on the floor. This will get everyone's knees and hips working at different angles than usual. And yes, it’s ok to have cushions available to make it comfier. We’re trying to move our bodies in unique ways, not punish ourselves and our guests.
I am actually traveling on the morning of December 25 this year, so I have some added challenges. Or do I have added opportunities? You be the judge. This is my plan.
On Dec 22, 23 and 24, I will make sure to get some good full-body workouts done so allowing my body some extra rest time is not only permissible it is encouraged. Then on the 25th, at the airport, I will not sit in the lounge waiting for my flight to board. I will pace, stretch, squat and keep my body moving. Let's face it, we sit more than enough on the plane.
Then, when I arrive, I will immediately join my nephew in a game of street hockey or go skating with my niece (or both). That is great visiting time and the perfect way to shake off all that sitting I did on the plane.
When it’s time to make dinner, I’ll stand at the counter to do my part. After dinner, even if it’s cold and dark, I will get the entire family out for a walk (the washing-up can wait). Then, once we’re back, we can all settle down on the floor to play a game or two before bed.
Sounds pretty great to me. And I am known as the family Grinch.
If this type of out-of-the-gym thinking appeals to you, make sure to check out the Weighless Holiday Tips Sheet that Monica Reinagel (the Nutrition Diva) and I put together. It's useful for this time of year or any time you need a boost.