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A Healthful Holiday

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By Dr. Katrina Wahlstrom |

The season of thanks and gift-giving are now upon us. This often means less time to yourself, and more time spent with friends, family, holiday parties and shopping. Although the holiday season is indeed magical, it can also lead to your health progress and goals fa la la la falling to the wayside until the decision is made to reignite the healthy New Year’s Resolution. Instead of waiting to the New Year to refocus on your health, there are several reasons to maintain your physical activity during the holidays. For one, the holidays can be stressful. Mounting expectations surrounding dinner plans, gift lists, and finances can place a considerable amount of stress on individuals and couples. Further, holiday foods and alcohol don’t do any favors for the waistline. There is no panacea for all of your stressors; however, staying active in or outside of the gym is great answer in making stress more manageable.

Symptoms of Stress:

  • Body aches and pains
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Digestive upset

These symptoms are just a few ways in which stress can physically and mentally manifest in the body. Adults and children alike can be affected by stress. The holidays may be difficult for individuals that have lost loved ones and people close to them. Likewise, factors stemming from the external environment such as less sunlight, over-commercialization, or inability to be with friends or family can lessen the joy around this season.

How Staying Active Aids in Reducing Stress

Any form of exercise can aid in reducing stress, physical activity ranging from aerobics to yoga can aid in this feat. Regardless of your current fitness level, a little movement throughout the day can go a long way. So, how exactly does exercise combat stress?

  • Increases your endorphins. Physical activity activates the endorphins that trigger positive feeling, similar to morphine. The feeling is often described as euphoric by acting as analgesics that lessen the perception of pain.
  • Lessens negative effects of stress. Although exercise is a form of stress, this physical form of stress can enable the body to manage general stress levels. It makes the body more resilient. Research indicates that the initial spike of stress that exercise elicits in the body leads to lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine after physical activity.
  • Meditation in motion. While we imagine Buddha meditated in perfect stillness, he was said to have mentioned that everything we do should be in “clear comprehension.” Our thoughts, feelings, and movements can provide insight and awareness. Use your exercise session to train in mindful movement. Allow yourself to focus on your breathing, posture, and the connection between your mind and body.
  • Enhances your mood. Movement of any kind may be beneficial in keeping depression and anxiety at bay. You don’t have to be an avid gym goer, just getting off the couch and moving a little can add up. One hour of low-intensity or 15 minutes of high intensity exercise are ideal and can still improve your mood.

Traveling during the holidays? Choose exercises that you can easily perform without the need for access to a local gym or personal exercise equipment. Old school exercises such as running, walking, jumping jacks, and crunches can be fit into a current fitness routine or one created while you are traveling. Don’t have much space? Try a few lunges, furniture dips, and body weight squats. With a little ingenuity and modifications, you can get in a quick 10 to 15 minute workout. If you find that it just isn’t possible to get in a sweat session due to all of the social commitments, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just as we forgive others, we have to forgive ourselves and start fresh the next day. Don’t wait until New Year’s Day to pursue your dreams, make that magic happen every day with purposeful thoughts and movements.

Dr. Katrina Wahlstrom is the Chair of Exercise Science and acting Director of the Center for Professional Studies and Continuing Education at the United States Sports Academy.

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