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How to stay fit and active this holiday season

It’s that time of year again: Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, and you've got lots of holiday celebrating, cooking and shopping to do. While the cold weather and a packed social calendar are easy excuses for not exercising, it's still important to be physically active - and below, Joyce Hanna, associate director of Stanford's Health Improvement Program, provides some useful advice for how to stay active and inspired.

What are some ways to stay motivated to exercise during the holidays?

The holidays can be a joyous time, but they can also be very stressful and a time of extreme sadness for some. It’s important to keep in mind that you’re going to feel better and be able to cope better with the holidays if you plan some exercise time into your day. Exercise will keep your stress level down, your mood and energy up and help deal with those extra holiday calories.

Having a sense of well–being will help you feel better about yourself and also help you be the kind of person you want to be for others. Research done by John Bartholomew, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin shows that just acknowledging you’re maintaining an exercise program can have an impact on your energy level. When you’re pleased with yourself for exercising, you have a greater sense of vigor and energy after the workout and throughout the day.

Wintery weather and short, dark days can be obstacles to getting out and being physically active. What tips can you share about how to overcome these challenges?

Here are some ways to be creative if darkness is interfering with your normal exercise routine. We all need back up plans for changes in weather, seasons and our schedules.

  • Gather some co-workers and walk briskly during your lunch break or just take off by yourself for some quiet alone-time.
  • Plan a couple of outdoor activities, such as a hike or bike ride (weather-permitting) with friends or family over the weekend.
  • If early mornings or evenings are your only times to exercise, give the gym a try, or sign up for an exercise class.  If you prefer exercising at home, try a workout home video, a TV exercise class or turn on your favorite music and dance.

Use this opportunity to add something new into your lifestyle. You might find that you enjoy it. And you'll have an alternative exercise whenever your regular exercise time is interrupted and you will be less controlled by the season and weather.

It’s often hard to squeeze in a workout along with busy travel plans and holiday festivities. What suggestions do you have for finding time to exercise?

Chances are you'll find that in spite of your good intentions there are times when you just won’t have time to do your planned exercise program. The most important thing to remember is that something is better than nothing. A study done at Stanford showed that breaking up a 30 minute exercise time into three shorter ten-minute segments produced significant health benefits.

I suggest to friends and family a “talk while we walk" date instead of a coffee or lunch date. Take advantage of the walking you’re doing while shopping. Walk briskly! Take the stairs, park far away, schedule meetings outside the office, walk down the hall to deliver a message instead of sending an e-mail, set a timer every 30 minutes to stand up and move. If you resist having an all-or-nothing attitude toward exercise, you'll find that you can maintain your fitness level over the holidays.

As 2012 approaches, many of us will make resolutions to be healthier in the New Year, including exercise more. Yet, statistics show that less than 50 percent of people who make resolutions will maintain them after six months. Why is it so difficult to keep our promises to get fit?

The number one reason why people do not keep their resolutions is because their resolutions are very unrealistic and based on what people think they “should” be doing. The greatest success comes when we set short term, realistic, behavioral goals – based on what we have previously been doing – gradually leading to sustainably change. You can still have an ambitious long-term goal, but focus instead on the small steps toward getting there. That means that if you haven't been exercising for the past year, a resolution likely to be successful would be, “I will walk for ten minutes twice a week,” rather than "I will walk for 30 minutes every day." Your success then has the potential to motivate you to set and reach more ambitious long-term goals.

What are some recommendations to help people stick to their fitness resolutions in 2012?

After you have gathered the necessary information about what you plan to do, you need to focus on what outcomes you expect from this fitness resolution. Is it to run a 5k race? Is it to walk up stairs without breathing so heavily? Is it to feel firm and fit and strong? Is it to help you with weight management? Is it to reduce your risk for heart disease? It's important to have a clear goal in mind. That way if you begin to waiver you can vividly remember exactly what it is you want and recommit to your resolution. You might even want to write your goal on a Post-it note to place on your bathroom mirror.

After establishing your goals, identify the helpful people you consider your supporters and share your goals with them. Then, define any obstacles that might get in your way and think about some strategies to deal with those obstacles. For instance, if your friend can't walk or run with you that day, what will you do? If the gym doesn’t work out for you, what will be your next choice?

In short, the more you think about and plan your fitness resolution, the more success you will have!

Previously: What you can do in thirty minutes a day, How physical activity influences health, Helping make New Year’s resolutions stick and Exercising makes you brawny and brainy
Photo by Vincent Desjardins

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