During the holiday season, we’re slammed with advertisements and messages telling us to burn off the extra holiday calories. Take a look around: This sort of language is everywhere — it’s in gym membership promotions, turkey trot sign-ups and grocery store signage.
It can be easy to fall for the belief that we need to rev up our exercise routines during the season, or at the very least maintain them, to compensate for the extra eating. Diet culture has taught us that treats are “bad” or an “indulgence,” and not exercising to compensate for them spells trouble for your health.
But the truth is that it’s really no big deal if you table your workouts over the holidays — not only is it unlikely that you’d lose any fitness, but the rest and relaxation could actually do you wonders.
We don’t need to ‘burn off’ food to be healthy
Despite the fact that we’re constantly told that we should exercise to make up for what we eat to stay healthy, the very opposite is true.
“It’s this very commonplace idea that we need to burn off everything we eat, and it’s just not accurate,” Colleen Schreyer, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told HuffPost.
If we eat more than we normally would on a given day — as we tend to do during the holidays — you may notice that afterwards you’ll feel less hungry or have less cravings than you typically would. This is because our body is pretty efficient at regulating itself if we’re listening to our hunger and fullness cues, Schreyer said.
Of course, paying attention to those cues can be tricky, especially in our society where we’re constantly fed messages about suppressing and ignoring hunger cues to meet unrealistic weight-loss goals. But being in tune with those cues is pretty straight forward — if you’re presented with food that looks delicious, you shouldn’t question whether or not you should eat it, but when you should eat it.
If you’re hungry, go for it. Your body is telling you it needs fuel and nourishment. On the flip side, fullness is all about recognizing and accepting that your body is currently satiated. If you’re full, you can always save the treat for later on.
“The answer shouldn’t be yes or no, but right now or later,” Schreyer said.
You won’t lose your fitness if you don’t exercise during this time
If you’re worried that you may lose any workout progress over the holidays, we have good news: Your fitness isn’t going to disappear that easily.
The benefits of exercise are achieved over a matter of months and years, not days or weeks. Missing a day, or even a couple weeks, won’t affect your overall health and fitness, Schreyer said.
In fact, a few days off might be just what your body needs. Rest days should be in people’s routines, according to Schreyer, as they let your muscles heal and rebuild. And when it comes to cardiovascular activities, you really don’t get much added benefit if you workout more than the recommended 150 minutes per week.
The whole idea that we need to work off our holiday eating habits takes something really good and healthy for us ― exercising ― and adds shame and guilt to it, which can be really counterproductive, said Alyssa Vela, a health psychologist and assistant professor of surgery and of psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Basically, nothing horrible is going to happen if you slow down over the holidays — in fact, the rest may very well do you some good.
Tips for managing exercise habits over the holidays
Schreyer said it’s important to remember that exercise, ultimately, is about health. If you’re worried because you’re exercising less, do another healthy activity — meditate, spend time with friends, stretch or go on a walk. Use the time to tend to other components of your well-being.
As little 10 minutes of physical activity can boost our mood. “So maybe we don’t go to our usual hour-long cycle class, but we are taking a couple of brisk 10-minute walks after meals, that can have huge benefits for our health and our blood sugar regulation, which also impacts our mood,” Vela said.
Next, try to look at the big picture. We’re allowed to take breaks from working out — doing so is actually great for our health. In fact, being kind and flexible with yourself is an important aspect of maintaining any health behavior in the long-term.
“There are seasons of the year, and of life, when our circumstances might not allow for our regular routine — a holiday, traveling, and illness, etc. — and that is OK,” Vela said.
If you’re unable to comfortably adjust your workout routine over the holidays, it may be worth talking about your worries with a mental health professional, Schreyer said. Many people struggle with slowing down, resting and recovering — especially since our society prioritizes productivity over well-being.
But “sometimes rest is the most productive thing we can do,” Vela said.