Ask an Expert: Exercise and the Holidays

Q: I look forward to the holidays except for one thing: I know I'll stop going to the gym, gain weight and arrive at January 1 feeling pretty bad about myself. Do you have any advice to help me avoid that pattern this year?

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, and Julie Erickson, fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services: 

You have plenty of company. The season offers lots of opportunities for extra eating and drinking. In addition, when busy schedules become even busier in the holiday rush, exercise is often a casualty. That all adds up to the potential for picking up unwelcome pounds between now and New Year's Day.

It’s OK to miss a day at the gym. But with simple planning, you can enjoy the season and be happy with yourself on January 1. This may mean making exercise a priority on some days, and allowing different forms of activity to take the place of your usual gym workout on other days.

Here are 25 tips to help you maintain your fitness level over the holidays. Some may be strategies you've heard before; others may be new. The important thing is to figure out which ones make sense for your life and to make those a part of your strategy for enjoying a healthy, happy holiday season.

Sneak in extra activity during holiday preparations and events.

1. Shop online, by phone or by catalog, and use the time you save for exercise.
2. Shop downtown or in another urban neighborhood where running your errands will involve a lot of built-in walking in an area with a festive atmosphere.
3. If you shop at a mall, go early and lap the mall a time or two before you start working down your gift list.
4. Joining friends at a restaurant or theater? Park 10 blocks away and walk the rest of the way. If you're taking public transportation, hop off a few stops early. (Keep sneakers and a rain jacket in the car or at work so you're always prepared for a walk.)
5. Mark an exercise appointment on your calendar, and keep it as faithfully as you would any other appointment.
6. Ask your gym about guest passes or other special-use options for visiting family members or houseguests, and invite them to exercise with you. (They may be missing their normal workout routines, too.)
7. Hosting a dinner at your place? Ask guests to bring comfortable shoes and warm coats, and take them on a stroll through the neighborhood in between dinner and dessert. If young children are part of the party, pop in a Wiggles CD or other upbeat music and dance for 15 minutes.
8. When planning a get-together with friends, suggest a walk in an area where you can take in the holiday lights and displays – then sit down for that drink or coffee afterwards.
9. Make fitness a family affair. Instead of the usual potluck with the relatives, suggest an outing that involves physical activity: Go hiking, walking, biking, snowshoeing, skating, skiing or sledding.
10. Read Finding Time for Fitness for many more ideas on this subject.

Plan ahead to fit in fitness during your holiday travels. 

11. If you'll be staying at a hotel, find out in advance whether the hotel offers a pool, fitness center, in-room exercise program or video/DVD player. That way, you'll know whether to bring your swimsuit, workout clothes or favorite exercise video.
12. Find out whether your home fitness center membership includes reciprocal benefits at a facility near your destination.
13. If you'll be staying with friends or relatives, let them know in advance that you'd like to make time for exercise during your visit, and invite them to join you.
14. Invest in portable, lightweight exercise gear that you can pack in your suitcase, such as resistance bands or tubing (Thera-Band is one type), a jump rope, or a deflatable exercise ball (also called a Swiss or physio ball) that you can re-inflate at your destination.
15. Wear a pedometer for several days of your usual life/schedule. This will give you a measure of your usual activity level. This baseline measurement will help if your goal in December is to maintain your normal fitness level. On your trip, pack the pedometer so you can work to match your usual amount of activity, even when the holidays are scrambling your schedule. (An aside: The general goal for fitness is 10,000 steps daily, the equivalent of about five miles. But your “usual” may be above or below that.)
16. If you have a portable music player, pack some CDs or download some music that will motivate you through a workout, wherever you go. 

Stay active on the road.

17. In the airport, take advantage of all the waiting time before and between flights to get in some brisk walking up and down the terminal.
18. Ask the hotel desk or your host about good walking or running routes.
19. Get flexible in your room – if the space allows, do a version of your usual stretching, tai chi, yoga or Pilates routine.
20. Ditto for strengthening – do pushups, crunches, squats and lunges, using your own body weight as the perfectly calibrated resistance gear. Unpack that resistance band or inflate your exercise ball for more strengthening exercises.
21. Don’t forget aerobic exercise – if you can find a spot appropriate for jumping rope, go for it. If you can only jump for a few minutes at a stretch, alternate jumping with marching in place until you log at least 20 minutes. Otherwise, just march in place for 20 minutes while you listen to music, watch TV or talk on the phone with that cousin you haven't seen since last year.

Exercise restraint at parties.

22.  Definitely, do not go hungry to a party.  Eat a healthy meal or snack ahead of time.
23. At the party, allow yourself to try a few sweets and high-calorie appetizers, and eat them slowly to really enjoy them. But linger longer at the beautiful platters of vegetables and fruits than at those bite-sized quiches.
24. Focus on people, not food. Visit with friends and family members, and introduce yourself to new faces. Position yourself far from the buffet table.
25. Remember that cocktails pack calories, too. If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to a drink or two. Alternate those with calorie-free sparkling water or diet soda.
Relax and enjoy the season.

Remember to relax a little. Enjoy holiday traditions and embrace special times with friends and family members. And rather than trying to lose weight, just do your best to maintain your fitness level and make it to New Year’s Day without any new pounds showing up on the scale.

December 2005