The festive season is upon us, and that can only mean diet debauchery, abandoned training regimes, Christmas parties and six-hour TV marathons. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little forward planning and a smidgeon of self-discipline, it is perfectly possible to enjoy a happy Christmas and enter the New Year feeling fit and strong, not fatter.
Many people fall off the training bandwagon at Christmas, or rule out the idea of getting fitter during the festive period, assuming there is no point in starting until the New Year. But given that one of the biggest barriers to exercise is lack of time, a break from the usual routine can provide the ideal opportunity to train consistently. Staying active over Christmas not only reduces your chances of gaining weight, it also helps energise you, reduces stress and gives you a break.
Exercising first thing may entail not getting much of a holiday lie in but it does ensure that you get your sessions done before other commitments and crises get in the way – and it will kickstart your metabolism for the rest of the day.
Workouts don’t need to be long to be beneficial. “If you’re prepared to work hard, you can fit a high intensity workout into just a 30-minute window. It’s a trade-off between duration and intensity. And if time is of the essence, you can even break down your daily exercise into short bouts rather than opt for one single prolonged session.
If an influx of family and visitors make it difficult to do your usual workout (say, a gym visit or a solitary run or bike ride), try to get everyone involved in something seasonal, like ice skating (click here for a link to the UK’s top ten seasonal ice rinks) or a winter walk. The Ramblers’ Association Festival of Winter Walks has a programme of more than 300 walks nationwide between Boxing Day and 3 January, open to all and ranging in length and difficulty. You can do various kinds of activity to be “training” without really forcing the issue.
As far as timing is concerned, it’s better to schedule activity in after eating, rather than before. Research from Old Dominion University shows that post-prandial exercise attenuates the glycaemic effect of food, minimising blood sugar spikes and dips and reducing the likelihood of further snacking later on. Gentle after-dinner activity also helps to support digestion a lot more than nodding off in an armchair does …
While it would be rather Scrooge-like to suggest that you forgo all treats and extras at Christmas, you can limit the damage by selecting your festive foods more carefully. Try choosing healthier nibbles like pretzels, roasted chestnuts, unsalted nuts, dried fruits or satsumas instead of crisps and chocolate. And think twice before you open your mouth. Do you really want it, or are you just eating it because it’s there?
Starting Christmas day with breakfast is a wise idea. You might be tempted to skip breakfast, but this is just likely to make you overindulge later on. Add festive fruits such as cranberries, dates and figs to your breakfast, to contribute towards your recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
One way of limiting the likelihood of over-indulging is to choose your outfit carefully. Steer clear of elasticated or loose waistbands – a fitted waistband will give you a benchmark of tightness. If the waistband fits in the morning, it should still fit by the evening. It’s a harsh wake-up call when you need to undo your top button to cram in another helping of roast potatoes or mince pies …
Don’t feel obliged to eat more than you normally would, just because it’s Christmas. Turning down seconds doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy your meal – it’s just that you have had enough.
Similarly, there is nothing wrong with politely putting your hand over your glass when it still has wine left in it, so that you can keep track of how much you’ve had. When the whole season is an excuse for celebration, those alcohol units can really mount up. Mulled wine on Christmas Eve, buck’s fizz with breakfast, wine with dinner, Baileys, brandy … Keep tabs on how much you are drinking, and intersperse alcoholic drinks with soft ones and plenty of water.
If you’re simply not prepared to raise your glass to a healthier festive season and intend to enjoy every over-indulgent, slothful moment, take comfort from research from the University of Oklahoma, which found that the average festive weight gain was little over 1lb (surveys show that most of us feel that we gain a lot more than that). “It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not the amount you exercise and eat between Christmas and New Year that is the problem – it’s what you do between New Year and Christmas that makes the real difference,” says Hodgkin.
‘I’m going to start in the new year …’
For those of us who fully intend to shelve health and fitness resolutions until the New Year, here’s some advice:
Be realistic. If you wake up on 1 January with a hangover and a strong urge for a double espresso and a bacon sandwich, is this really the day to begin the first day of the rest of your year? Start on the 2nd, instead, and use the 1st to finish up the stilton and the Quality Street and to clear the cupboards of any other tempting food that is not in keeping with your new regime!”
Set goals. Spend some time formulating and writing down your health and training and race goals, ensuring they are challenging but realistic. Be positive and confident about your ability to achieve them.
Be patient. Fitness, speed and power don’t happen overnight. That’s why it is important to have a time frame for your goal. Set mini goals to work towards along the way – these give you something more immediate to aim for, and help you build confidence and faith in yourself.
Keep track. Keep a food and/or exercise diary to monitor your progress and help motivate you to stay focused on your goals.
Is Christmas a great time to exercise, or is it the one time of the year when it’s OK to stay on the sofa?