March 4, 2024


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Reduce stress during the holidays with these fitness strategies

As the holiday season ramps up, daily schedules can easily fill with the demands of the season, like shopping, cooking, wrapping and planning. To avoid overload, it’s all too easy to shift self-care priorities — like regular exercise — to the bottom of the list. Skipping workouts, however, can actually make it more difficult for our bodies and minds to deal with added holiday stressors.

a woman standing on a rug

© Courtesy Dana Santas

Instead of letting exercise slide, taking a less-is-more approach to working out will enable you to avoid schedule overload without sacrificing your health. By training smarter, not longer, you can increase time available for holiday to-dos while still decreasing the impact of seasonal treats on the waistline. This plan will also help reduce stress and safeguard your overall well-being.

Below, I outline four strategies to help you stay fit during the holiday season.

Important note: If you experience pain while performing any of the exercises, stop immediately. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.

Use habit stacking to add more daily exercise

One of the best ways to train smarter, not harder, in this busy time of year is to ensure you’re exercising consistently at least a few minutes every day by making it a habit. And one of the most effective ways to create a daily habit that sticks is to stack it on an existing one.

Consider some of common everyday habits that are so ingrained in your routine, you automatically do them, such as brushing your teeth, showering and making your bed. By adding an exercise right before, during or directly after one of those habits, it’s easier to make it stick in your daily routine. For example, for nearly eight years now, I’ve been doing 50 body-weight squats or two-minute wall sits while I brush my teeth.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago when I read James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits” that I realized what I’d been doing was called “habit stacking.”

In a blog post on Clear’s website, he explains why “synaptic pruning” in our brains supports habit stacking. Connections (synapses) between neurons in our brains, he wrote, decrease when not used and strengthen when used frequently. Consequently, existing habits have stronger synaptic connections that we can leverage through habit stacking to create new habits.

That’s why my squat habit while toothbrushing was so easy to start and maintain. After reading Clear’s blog, I also added 10 push-ups before showering to my daily routine — and I formed that habit easily as well!

What daily habits could you stack with different forms of exercise?

Feel free to use mine or come up with your own. Maybe 30 jumping jacks before morning coffee? Or 20 alternating step-back lunges right after putting on your shoes? Choose what feels right for you to slot into your routine.

Multitask your mobile screen time

Although spending time on your smartphone might seem like a habit, it’s usually more of a time waster that happens sporadically throughout the day rather than a natural part of a daily routine. And leading up to the holidays, many people experience an increase in mobile screen time. Whether people are online shopping, answering texts or scrolling social media to keep up with friends’ holiday plans, many folks inevitably spend a significant chunk of the day looking down at their phones.

What if you could make even a fraction of that time better for your health? And maybe even dissuade yourself from spending so much time looking at your phone? You can — by incorporating posture-improving, core and leg-strengthening wall sits in your smartphone time.

By design, wall sits are challenging. So, even though they’re good for you, you aren’t going to want to hold them for very long or do very many sets. So if you pair them with your smartphone time, you’ll likely reduce your scrolling minutes just to avoid them — which isn’t a bad thing for your mental health.

How to do a wall sit:

Stand with your head and back flat against a wall and your feet hip-distance apart.

Step your feet forward about 18 to 24 inches as you slide down the wall into a squat position where your knees align with your hips and thighs are parallel to the floor (see top photo).

If keeping your thighs parallel to the floor is too tough to maintain, only slide down the wall until you feel a challenging muscular effort you can sustain for at least 30 seconds. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to go deeper.

Engage your core as you continue pressing your back into the wall.

Try to hold this position for at least 30 seconds at a time or as long as you can comfortably while continuing your mobile tasks.

Don’t bend your neck to look down at your phone! Give your “text neck” a break and your posture a boost by keeping the back of your head against the wall while holding your phone up to meet your gaze.

In between wall sits, stand upright, take a few deep breaths and repeat.

Squeeze in a 4-minute high-intensity workout

Even at the height of the holiday bustle, strive to find four minutes to exercise a few times per week. And less really is more with high-intensity interval training, or HIIT. Studies have shown that HIIT can burn 25% to 30% more calories in a shorter amount of time than other forms of exercise while also being effective at decreasing visceral (or belly) fat without dietary changes.

So, if you’re up to the challenge of maintaining periods of elevated heart rate alternated with short recovery periods, four-minute Tabata-style HIIT workouts could be your time-efficient recipe for staying fit over the holidays.

Tabata drills, created by Japanese scientist Izumi Tabata, consist of the same exercise performed through eight rounds of 20 seconds of activity and 10 seconds of rest for a total of four minutes. You can use almost any body-weight exercise, but I recommend selecting one that requires a total-body effort and fits your current fitness level and preference.

For instance, mountain climbers and jumping jacks are two very different, yet effective, total-body exercises. Because I prefer a more intense, core-oriented challenge with this drill, I use mountain climbers.

How to perform mountain climbers Tabata style:

Set your phone’s timer for four minutes.

Begin in a plank position with your core engaged and back flat.

Place your phone on the floor in front of you, so you can easily see and reach it.

Hit start on your time and begin doing mountain climbers, by alternating bringing each knee up to your chest, then back to plank position, at a pace you can sustain throughout the drill.

When the timer hits the 3:40 mark, rest for 10 seconds and restart at the 3:30 mark.

Rest again at 3:10 and begin again at 3:00.

Repeat through all four minutes.

Make time to de-stress and recover

Despite all their splendor, the holidays take a toll on both our mental and physical health. Family demands like shopping and cooking and indulgences such as increased intake of high-fat, high-sugar treats and alcohol consumption deliver stressors of all types. And the shorter, darker days of winter make it even harder on some.

To recover from this onslaught of stress, it’s important to get adequate sleep and take intentional mental and physical energy breaks. Prioritizing recovery is important all the time but especially during the holidays. Consequently, this is one area where less is not more — more is more.

Get all the sleep you need: Your body needs sleep to repair and replenish itself, so don’t skimp on it in your schedule. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, try my pre-bedtime six-minute routine based on programs I use with pro-athlete clients.

Feel like you need a nap? You probably do! A 15- or 25-minute nap can provide a much-needed energy boost.

Sign up for our CNN’s Sleep, But Better Newsletter to get better sleep.

Take breaks to recharge: It’s important to unplug at least once a day. That means taking at least a few minutes away from all your tasks — and yes, your phone — to revitalize your mind and body. You can do this by practicing a mindfulness meditation or breathing exercise, taking a walk or simply relaxing in a comfortable position, like this legs-up-the-wall pose.

Staying fit over the holidays doesn’t have to mean depriving yourself of all the season’s treats; it just requires a more strategic approach to fitness. And following the tips above will create healthy lifestyle changes that will continue to serve you long after the holidays pass.

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