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With the holiday season just around the corner, we’re again entering the time of year most commonly associated with feasting and fun — but what does this mean for your current fitness and health routines?

Whether you spend the holidays traveling to see family or find yourself hosting and cooking for friends, this time of year brings plenty of changes to your normal day-to-day activities. And while these changes are accompanied by lots of joy, connection, and delicious food, the holiday season also poses many challenges for those looking to keep up their established fitness habits — especially when you have multiple holiday events to attend!

While staying committed to your exercise routine during the holidays may be important to you, it is essential to realize that sticking to your regular fitness habits will be more difficult than usual. For some, this added challenge can cause increased stress and guilt, two feelings that can lead to restricting food intake or event attendance to meet your goals.

Instead of this route, you can choose other ways to stay fit during the holidays while still having fun. The secret to success lies in striking a balance between making healthy choices and enjoying parties and holiday faves!

It’s possible to stay on track while still having a great time, especially if you move through this season with an awareness of its stressors and lots of self-compassion. Read on to learn our top tips for navigating the holidays without losing sight of your health and fitness goals.

The holiday season brings plenty of joy (but also plenty of stress)

A group of people clink glasses.

For most people, the holiday season is filled with family events, get-togethers with friends, and workplace gatherings. Because this is a time of year when regular business working hours seem to go right out the window (and stress levels go through the roof), it should come as no surprise that sticking to your regular fitness routine may become a bit more challenging.

During this time of increased social obligations, it’s common for people to feel overwhelmed, or like they don’t have enough time to keep up with their regular workouts and lifestyle habits.

If you’ve ever felt this way during the holidays, you are definitely not alone! Below are some eye-opening statistics from the American Association of Psychology about how the holiday season impacts stress levels in the United States.

Stress levels run high during the holidays

On average, most Americans feel a rise in their stress levels, rather than a decrease, during the holidays. Factors like busy schedules, increased spending, and the pressure to host “perfect” events add plenty of excess holiday stress.

Holiday stress is more likely to impact women than men

On average, women are expected to take on additional responsibilities (like event planning, cooking, and decorating) during the holidays, which can cause added stress. Additionally, women also reported having a harder time genuinely relaxing over the holiday season and that they’re more likely to turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms during this time.

Positive and negative emotions cause additional stress

As a time of year when people reconnect with family and friends, emotions tend to run high during the holidays. While positive feelings of happiness, love, and connectedness are commonly felt during this time, negative emotions like fatigue, stress, anger, and irritability are also common — and nothing to be ashamed of.

Juggling work and personal life commitments causes stress

While some people can take time off during the holidays, not everyone has the privilege of doing so. Workplace stress (from working long hours or not making enough money) is prevalent during the holiday season.

People attempting to balance a busy work schedule with more social obligations may also develop elevated stress as their packed calendars become difficult to manage.

Holiday foods can impact your digestion, energy level, and sleep

A woman in pajamas is surrounded by alarm clocks.

At the same time that holiday stress and social obligations are interfering with your regular fitness routine, you may be faced with another challenge: holiday events that are full of delicious (and high-calorie) foods and drinks.

And while these foods are not inherently bad, it’s important to note that consuming more calories than usual for a few weeks may have an impact on your health goals.

That said, this is not a cautionary tale encouraging you to restrict and avoid your favorite foods (the risks of which are covered in the next section). It’s important to enjoy holiday culinary traditions with your loved ones

However, changing your typical eating patterns may cause mild physical symptoms. Some of the most common reactions that people experience as a result of eating high amounts of holiday foods include:

  • Elevated risk of heartburn — During periods of increased eating, your stomach needs to create larger amounts of hydrochloric acid to break down the food. Due to this, you may experience acid reflux or heartburn symptoms.
  • Blood glucose level spikes — If you eat a larger portion of carbohydrates, desserts, or sweets than usual, your blood glucose levels will rise as your body breaks these treats down into simple sugars. While you may experience a short-lived period of energy due to this spike, you will also likely experience an energy crash shortly thereafter.
  • Decreased sleep quality — Consuming rich foods and alcohol on a regular basis throughout the holidays can have an impact on your sleep quality. Because alcohol, as well as certain foods, can make it harder to fall and stay asleep, you may experience increased sleep disruptions and fatigue.

With this in mind, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that avoiding all rich and delightful holiday foods is the best way to stay on track with your current fitness goals — but as it turns out, restricting yourself over the holidays can do more harm than you may think.

Restriction can lead to guilt and overeating

As tempting as it can be to cut out all of your favorite holiday foods, the act of limiting your diet this harshly may actually cause you to reach for extra servings.

Known as the dieting cycle, this eating pattern often leads to overeating during periods of stress. The dieting cycle usually repeats the following steps:

  1. Restricting foods in an attempt to be “good”.
  2. Developing a craving for the “bad” foods one is avoiding.
  3. Giving in and eating more “bad” foods than one wants to and feeling temporarily better.
  4. Feeling immense guilt and shame, vowing to be “better” next time, and starting to restrict again.

As you can guess, this behavior may lead to a damaged relationship with food in the future. According to a 2013 study, there’s a potential risk of developing overly heightened reward responses in the brain as a result of overeating.

This being said, what should you do instead of avoiding rich food to stay on track with your fitness goals over the holidays? The answer lies in reframing the way you think about food, movement, and yourself. As you participate in holiday activities, it’s important to treat yourself with compassion and appreciation. 

5 tips for staying fit during the holidays while still having fun

A family hikes in a snowy landscape.

Here are our top five tips for helping you serenely navigate the changes that come with the next few weeks of holiday cheer:

Fit in your favorites

Everyone has go-to foods, treats, and drinks that they enjoy during the holidays — and choosing to restrict or avoid these pleasures altogether isn’t good for your body or your soul. Instead of saying no to them, mindfully enjoy your favorites by starting with smaller servings and eating or sipping them slowly, so you truly savor them.

Stick to a simplified fitness routine

Over the holiday season, it’s all too easy to fall out of your regular fitness routine. To ensure you’re able to stick with your exercise habit, try simplifying or adjusting your workouts. For example, instead of hitting the gym, you might try going on a hike with your family or doing an at-home workout with your kids. Any movement is good movement, so if you feel yourself struggling to keep up your normal habits, these small changes can still help you move toward your goals.

Drink plenty of water

When in doubt, stay hydrated! Making sure you consume enough water throughout the day is good for your overall health and can keep you from accidentally eating or drinking more than you intend to. Increasing your daily water intake by drinking two glasses of water in the morning and opting for water or unsweetened herbal tea instead of other beverages are great ways to start hydrated while also cutting back on your caloric intake.

Be conscious of the types (and amounts) of food you consume

When dinner is ready, you have a great opportunity to pay extra attention to what (and how much) you are adding to your plate. As a general rule of thumb, do your best to fill your plate only with the foods you intend to eat, instead of adding extra servings just because. If you are still hungry after your first plate, you can always go back for seconds, but you may find that you do not need to!

Use self-compassion and enjoy the foods you love

If you notice that you may have overdone it for a day (or two), it’s important to remember that this is not going to ruin every health habit that you have built. If you find yourself in this situation, do your best to practice self-compassion and remind yourself that this is just one day — you can (and will) be able to return to your regular patterns tomorrow.

Putting it all together 

People socialize at a holiday party.

So, has this article helped you feel more in control as you head toward the holiday season?

Here’s the primary takeaway: although it’s challenging, it is possible to stay healthy during the holidays. Whenever possible, doing your best to strike a balance between being active and having fun will help you to create a more relaxing holiday experience.

With that in mind, enjoy your upcoming get-togethers with family and friends!

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