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Staying fit during the holidays: It's a matter of just moving

By Leslie Barker

The holidays — just in case you’ve missed the commercials that began before Halloween — are upon us. And we’ll start right here by saying if they have no bearing on how often and how hard you exercise, we salute you.

But from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day (and quite possibly beyond), many of us hone our juggling skills — tossing into the air balls of baking, shopping, decorating, traveling, hosting, wrapping, keeping kids entertained till school starts again.

How can we possibly find time for our usual three Orangetheory Fitness classes every week? And if we can’t find time for all three, why even bother with one? Might as well just wait till after January 1 to get started again, eh?

In a word: NO.

“That once-a-week workout is really important,” says Rachelle Reed, Ph.D., director of fitness science for Orangetheory Fitness. “Of course consistency is best, but in order to sustain it long term, we encourage a flexible approach. Decades of research show that people with a more flexible mindset do a better job at navigating situations like the holiday season.”

If you can be flexible and not completely eliminate physical activity, she says, “you’ll have an easier way of getting back into your routine after the holidays.”

Which leads us to three key points:

No. 1: Exercise doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

“Some is better than none,” Dr. Reed says. “Always.”

Orangetheory Fitness, says research scientist Brittany Masteller, Ph.D.,  “urges  members to not view exercise with that ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset. While the frequency of workouts may be reduced due to holiday activities, incorporating exercise and other physical activities is still encouraged — even if that means less time under the orange lights and more time doing activities with family and friends.”

Got some time after dinner? Go for a holiday light stroll with your family. Finished ordering gifts online? Surprise your dog with an extra walk. Find yourself outside on a brisk and glorious afternoon? Play a little cornhole. And of course, Orangetheory workouts are always available -- whether you need to take a you-break or just want to get pumped with your favorite coach and classmates.

Cutting back for a few weeks, experts stress, is not going to sabotage the progress you’ve worked so hard to attain. Even skipping an entire week won’t send you back to square one.

The message, Dr. Reed says, is this: “If you can’t get in structured exercise, do what you can and get back in when you can. Misconceptions about how fast you might lose endurance or strength are pervasive, and certainly taking a week off or having a lighter week really won’t have a massive impact. It’s when physical inactivity continues to happen over time that you start to lose adaptations.”

“Detraining,” which Dr. Masteller defines as “the loss of your body’s training-induced adaptations,” can be reduced by keeping up an exercise routine, even if it’s not your usual one.

“The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend a weekly dose of at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity weekly,” she says, “plus two days of total-body resistance training. Workouts are just one type of physical activity.”

Adds exercise physiologist Fabio Comana, a member of Orangetheory’s Medical Advisory Board: “The behavior we want members to do is to stay engaged with exercise.”

Which brings us to Point No. 2: Everything counts.

There’s this jaw-dropping bit of magic in the exercise science world called N.E.A.T, which is short for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

“N.E.A.T.,” says Comana, who teaches behavior change science at San Diego State University, “is where we see research going. It’s not about finding time to exercise, but making changes in the way we do things.”

Basically, it means incorporating movement into our day. He offers this personal example of how he took it to heart during the pandemic:

“During COVID, a lot of us lost the opportunity to visit a place to exercise. I was left doing exercise in my garage or in my neighborhood, and I put on about eight or nine pounds. As summer came around, I decided to get myself back into shape. I started walking around campus more. I didn’t change what I ate. I exercised a little more and I lost those eight pounds. I did what I know works: I moved more and I stood up more.”

Yes he lost weight, but perhaps more importantly, he kept his fitness level in check. He felt, and continues to feel, good.

“Get an idea of your typical day,” he says. “Find ways to include more physical activity.”

For instance, if you typically use the restroom on the floor where you work, take the stairs to one on another floor. Stand during meetings. Set a timer to go off every 30 minutes throughout your day. When it goes off, move for a minute, or two or three minutes, even if that just means standing up and sitting down. Or decide to do five pushups every 30 minutes. By day’s end, you’ll have done 40 of them.

“Recognize how the action you’re doing ties into the important values in your life,” Comana says. “For instance, if you can be more active while at work, you can shave 20 minutes off your gym workout and have more time to spend with your kids before they go to bed.”

Which leads us to Point No. 3, which is OTF’s mission: More Life.

“After the past two years, this more than ever means having a body and mind strong enough to make it through, and it also means enjoying more time with family and friends,” Dr. Reed says.

Adds Dr. Masteller: ”Practice viewing exercise and physical activity as a positive part of your routine that will help you bring #MoreLife to your holiday season.”

She also urges members to plan ahead. Along with parties and shopping expeditions, include exercise — even a little — on your calendar.

“Remember all the reasons you exercise during other parts of the year,” she says. “Those benefits don’t go away just because it’s the holidays,” she says.