4 Reasons to Exercise This Holiday Season

The holiday season brings good tidings and joy, but also stress from all sides. The closest thing to a magic bullet? Exercise. Making a commitment to consistent activity during the holiday season might seem like a tall order, but this week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen makes a case for taking on the challenge.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #133

Today, the day after Thanksgiving, is the unofficial start to the holiday season. Turkey Day is just the beginning of a month-long crush of good tidings and joy, to be sure, but also boatloads (or maybe sleighloads?) of stress. There are the financial pressures of a consumer society, potential eruptions of old and new family grievances, not to mention the availability of too much spiked eggnog and New Year’s Eve champagne, plus an avalanche of cookies.

But there’s one thing that can help with pretty much every holiday woe: exercise. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to think about that until it’s New Year’s resolution time, but here’s a holiday challenge for you: Aim for consistent activity this month. A little something every day. Not convinced?  Consider these four benefits of exercise this holiday season.

Benefit #1: Get a head start on making healthy habits automatic.  Now, we’re used to thinking about exercise in January, when, according to a Nielsen survey, 37% of Americans resolve to “stay fit and healthy” while 32% resolve to lose some weight. That’s a lot of exercise-related resolutions.

But start this weekend and get way ahead of the pack. Most of us have heard the myth that it takes 21 days for a new habit to form. Oddly, this urban legend appears to have originated from a different kind of transformation: plastic surgery. Back in the 50s, it was found that people who went under the knife typically adjusted to their new appearance within 21 days, starting a decades-long game of telephone that somehow morphed from new noses to new habits.

More recent research has since found that it takes, on average, 66 days to solidify a new habit though of course it varies from person to person. But in general, round up a few days and call it an even 10 weeks. So start exercising a little bit every day now and by New Year’s Day, you’ll already be halfway there.

And it works—in a study in the International Journal of Obesity, participants were given ten concrete, defined tips to try to turn into habits, like not heaping food (except vegetables) on one’s plate, taking a break to be active for ten minutes out of every hour of sitting, and limiting fruit juice to one glass a day. After 32 weeks, those who had made the weight loss tips automatic had lost the most weight.

But best yet, for an investment of exercising a little bit every day for 66 days, you yield a healthy habit you don’t even have to think about ever again. Indeed, in an interview study with people who had achieved the holy grail of automatizing healthy habits, participants said the habits “wormed their way into your brain” and that they felt “quite strange” if they didn’t engage in their routine, which sounds suspiciously like the aftermath of an alien mind control invasion. Those must be some health-conscious aliens. But I digress.

Benefit #2: The Domino Effect. One healthy habit can jump-start a series of healthy habits, in an effect logically called the Domino Effect. So by making one consistent healthy decision every day this holiday season—the decision to exercise—you might find yourself making other healthy decisions unconsciously, like making fewer trips to the cookie jar or stopping after one hot buttered rum. Usually, controlling oneself at a holiday party buffet or open bar takes a lot of willpower, but with the Domino Effect, it may not take up nearly as much headspace.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.