Estimated Reading Time: 14 Minutes
Every year many people approach the festive period excited for the fun and festivities December brings, actually as I’m writing this, I’ve just returned from a Xmas market in Exeter, UK. and there were thousands of people out eating, drinking and being merry, health & fitness concerns a million miles away.
When you’ve been in the fitness industry as long as I have, you’d be remiss not to acknowledge trends, and of course one of the biggest we see every year is the regression made in December, and the over correction made in January in the form of new years resolutions, restriction and an unsustainable approach to working out and eating well.
If I had to reduce my fitness coaching to one core message, it would be and has been that you have to break the ‘all or nothing’ cycle, because you take too many losses when you allow your efforts to go to nil, and an over restrictive approach to exercise & nutrition can never be sustained, which leads to a lot of burn out and frustration.
Just ask any gym owner how busy their training floor is in January vs March and you’ll get a feel for how long this kind of over-correction can be sustained.
I’m going to talk broadly about how to navigate the period and see what the obvious banana peels and opportunities are.
At the end of the article I am going to offer a wild card opportunity, almost as a tongue in cheek challenge. But at the same time, from a coaching perspective, I would say that there is a time and a place for a ‘scorched earth’ approach, and whether or not it is the right move for you will depend largely on the amount of discomfort you feel right now from not being where you want to be with your health & fitness.
To formulate a strategy as to how you will approach the festive period, I am not going to give you a one size fits all approach, just like in my online personal training service, individual differences are always in play, so let's explore a few questions i'd encourage you to ask yourself.
How detrimental will taking Christmas off be?
I don’t feel it’s my place to give you an overly prescriptive way to deal with Christmas, how you enjoy the holidays you’ve worked hard all year for is up to you. But assuming you’re reading this article to help make the best of what could be, or for you, has historically been a period fraught with banana skins, then I’m here to help.
First of all, let’s look at what the potential downside losses are if everything goes wayward over Xmas, once we know that you’ll be in a place to decide how tactical you’d like to get.
To answer a question like how detrimental would it be to take Xmas off, is (like almost everything) takes nuance and personal reflection, so strap yourself in, let’s start asking some questions, the answers to which will permeate beyond just focusing on Xmas.
How detrimental skipping exercise and healthy eating during Xmas will be, really depends on your current trajectory and its relationship to where you are now in relation to where you want to be, and getting a good grip on how long that process is going to take to complete.
What I mean is that if right now you already have a level of fitness, muscularity, body fat percentage that your are happy with and are currently engaged in consistent exercise, then taking a few days off over Christmas isn't going to be too detrimental at all.
This is because you already have the habit set that you need to achieve your goals, if you aren't already where you want to be, on a long enough time line if you are confident in your exercise program and healthy eating then it will only be a matter of time until you achieve your goals. In this scenario, you’ll simply take a few days off and you can easily jump back on that train and be right back where you want to be, which is great! So if this is the scenario you are in, don’t overthink Xmas, just enjoy it.
However, its a little more complex if you aren’t where you want to be because the potential lost ground is more severe the further away from your goals you are. In fact, you could argue that any deviation from the pursuit of your goals is a banana peel that could get out of hand, because a track record of consistent training has not been established.
I suppose to give you a real answer, we have to define exactly what we mean by ‘taking Christmas off’ if you are just taking Xmas day itself off, there is only so much trouble you could really get into, a single day off is always going to be easily recoverable.
However if what you mean by taking Xmas off is allowing the entire festive period to be a washout thats 3-4 weeks with the eye off the ball, and that may not be in your best interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, thats enough time to see a regression in fitness, put muscle mass at risk of loss and gain a decent amount of body fat if not eating well, but more insidious, is the backward step it implies you’d be making with your habit forming.
As I mentioned above, if training and eating well is second nature to you, theres not much to be concerned about, its a well established switch you can just throw back on whenever you want, but if right now you’ve been working hard to establish momentum, I really suggest you don’t set yourself back to square one, its not easy make exercise a daily habit, so if you’re there right now, as a coach, I would urge you to protect your momentum.
Which leads us to dig a bit deeper into what we mean by ‘off’ exactly, because when you’re coming from an all or nothing mindset, taking Xmas off might be a little too literal, whereas the real key to staying in shape long term is knowing how to pull back slightly from your full training program, but keep a minimum threshold of activity and habits that mean you don’t move backwards. This doesn’t have to be more than 10-20 minutes per day, and you’ll be able to do most of it at home, or simply walking around your local area.
The other element in play here which leans a little more toward the personal development side of things is being very honest with yourself about how prominent of a role health & fitness plays in your life.
The deeper a need exercise serves for you, the less I would suggest you allow things to slip. For example, ask yourself this….is exercise purely a tool you use to look better? I.e is following a training program for you purely an aesthetic endeavour? I’m not undermining that at all, I spent years doing just the same. The reason I ask you to make this distinction is that if all health and fitness is for you is changing body composition and looking better in the mirror, then I really wouldn’t worry too much about some time off, again, as long as you trust your workout program you are on a pretty linear path from A to B, so a deviation can just be made up in January by getting back on your program.
However, if your health & fitness program represents more to yo than that, a long period of inactivity may give you more problems than you might initially think, and if thats the case I’m really writing this article for you. You see, many people don’t realise that the benefits of regular efforts towards your health & fitness can be thought of as an iceberg, with the clearly visible parts representing the commonly recognised benefits like better fitness, strength, fat loss and muscle growth. But what isn’t as obvious are benefits such as better mental health by way of reduced anxiety and feelings of depression, the opportunity for pain free movement, a reduction in health risks and improved digestion.
So if you’ve noticed an improvement in any of these areas due to being more active or generally focusing on your health more, I would think twice about allowing yourself to lose momentum over Christmas, as these habits may be what is keeping you at a certain threshold or even keeping your head above water so to speak, and giving you a better quality of life. I know the phrase ‘quality of life’ sounds a little extreme but if you’ve ever gone from immobile and in frequent pain or in daily digestive discomfort to not even having to consider it anymore, then you know what I mean.
Personally, I wouldn't want to run the risk of unpacking and unraveling all of those habits just because it’s Christmas.
What happens if I can’t control my routine?
For the vast majority of people, to one extent or another you will not be able to fully control your routine over Christmas. Maybe you'll be eating with friends & family, and they’ll want to do food their way. Or maybe the challenge will be that gyms will be closed for a period of time. Further still, perhaps your major challenge will simply be oppressively cold weather that isn’t going to lend itself to outdoor running and cycling.
All of these things could cause an interruption in your plans, so it’s at this point that we have to get a little philosophical. One of the biggest assets you can develop in pursuit of your health & fitness is to develop your internal locus of control.
I.e to what extend are you going to ensure that you maintain control of your health & fitness efforts over Xmas or will you be influenced or impeded by logistics, other people, or pure convention?
This is a serious question and perhaps something to meditate on now before those challenges present themselves. To be sure, developing an internal locus of control is a lifelong endeavour and worth having as a constant consideration. Repeatedly asking yourself, Am I responsible? Am I in control of the things that are in my best interest? Or am I letting something or someone get in the way of my progress?
We may then touch on a little bit of stoicism. By which I mean, there are going to be times that we cannot control all of the circumstances in our lives, and when thats the case we have to find a way to lean into the things we can control.
Staying with family and can’t control nutrition? Then you double down on exercise.
Gyms are closed over Xmas? Then you exercise at home
Too cold to get out for a run? Do indoor HIIT
Adopting this mindset and always finding a way to focus on what you can control and act on what keeps you moving forward will serve you long beyond Xmas. Essentially it makes you solution oriented.
After all, whats the alternative? Letting one thing not being quite perfect lead to discouragement? and then letting something else fall by the way side? You do that for too long and you’ll find yourself at the business end of the all or nothing cycle.
Health & Fitness is all about consistency.
If my major message of warning is that the 'all or nothing' cycle is to be avoided at all costs, the natural expansion on that is that the key to long lived results with health & fitness is to be found with unremarkable, but unflinching consistency.
Always remember that small consistent efforts are 100% the way to win with health and fitness. An athlete trains every day, and if they miss a day it is only to rest and recover, a bodybuilder trains, records and eats with meticulous detail week after week, year after year for marginal gains. You don’t have to live like that, but you should operate with this as a frame of reference, consistency ALWAYS wins the day in the end, there is no way around it.
Why can’t I just start again from January 1st?
Well, you can, but there are a couple of questions to consider here too…
Where do you want to be on January 1st? And How hard have you worked to get where you are right now?
Think ahead to the spiral of events that could unfold if you don’t strategise the next few weeks. It’s going to be tempting to seek and bask in comfort over the Xmas period, I know there will be times I’ll have my feet up by the fire with a book, no doubt enjoying nice snacks and drinks. But don’t confuse this time of home comforts with a free ride on activity, you’ve no doubt worked hard to be at the point you are right now, and at any point in life you are in control of the decisions you make, will you protect what you’ve worked hard for or will you let things slip?
Remember your physique and fitness levels won’t go into stasis with inactivity, they’ll regress, muscle is lost if not stimulated, fitness decreases over time and fat gain is likely when calories go up, reduce in quality and activity levels go down.
Why would you accept this? Now is the time to decide that this isn’t going to happen.
To play out the cycle a little more, what will happen if you completely take your foot off of the gas is going to be arriving at the first week of January, in significantly worse shape and considering options for making up lost ground. This usually means diet culture and under eating or over-exercise. Perhaps both.
All of these are short term measures, and aren’t going to establish any kind of maintainable positive lifestyle, this turns a positive intention at the start of the year right back into the storm of that dreaded all or nothing cycle.
The best way to avoid it is to decide right now, before you’ve even finished reading this article that you won’t allow yourself to be in that position on January 1st.
Well that’s my philosophical call to action, I hope its provided some food for thought. On the tactical front, below are a list of easy measures you can put in place to help minimise any potential backward steps over the next few weeks:
The Period (The 2-3 weeks of Holidays)
- Intermittent fasting - Consider adopting or increasing a time restricted eating period.
- Focus on proteins for major meals - Ensuring that you focus on protein first in your major meals will help you get the nutrients you need to sustain muscle and help with recovery, it will also help with satiation
- Do the shopping - if you can control whats available you can control whats eaten
- Stay hydrated - Keep water intake high, and drink water before meals
- Eat before going out - If you’re going for a night out, make sure it’s after a proper meal.
- Reach for the teas - they keep you feeling full and you can use them to avoid sugar cravings
- Walk every day - this is the easiest way to get activity no matter where you are
- Shorter workouts -Short Workout structures can pay dividends (don’t stop training, just keep workouts short and frequent)
- Skip breakfast that day - (if you are comfortable with time restricted eating)
- Get out for a walk - (steady state) that morning
- Drink water before your main meal - This will help you feel satiated and avoid over-eating
- Have a warm drink after dinner - This should also keep you feeling full
The Unseen Opportunity - The Mayweather Effect & Adopting The Underdog Mentality
I did promise that I would throw a 'wild card' into this article so here goes. As a coach, I’m always on the lookout for challenges one could instigate that would cultivate character. One of the routes to character building is to determine to do things while they are hard. After all, if you rely on great conditions to do something, you will have to rely on fortune, not fortitude, to get to and stay where you want to be, it certainly isn’t going to be the most reliable route to success.
I’ll always remember watching arguably the best boxer of all time Floyd Mayweather train for a fight, he was already champion, had already guaranteed himself a place in the boxing hall of fame and indeed had already become a very wealthy man. I remember being struck by the fact that he was training at 2am purely because he knew that his opponent wouldn't be.
I started to think of this as the underdog mentality, and thought about how this could be applied in my own life. Could I work harder than others? Could I work when I knew others wouldn’t be? Could I exercise, write or read when I knew others would not be? To be honest, for a time I got a bit of a kick out of it, and I still workout on Christmas day to tip my hat to this concept of the ‘underdog mentality’
The argument for doing this is that if you are really far away from your goals right now, or a little too uncomfortable with the current state of your health, fitness or appearance, a logical approach might be to say to yourself "why would I do anything that takes me further away from my goal right now?" and to be honest, I've been here myself, which is why I'm putting this option forward. There are times in life, I believe, when it is 100% in your best interest to relentlessly pursue your goals. This is not to be confused with the all of nothing approach, I don't mean over-exercising or taking health risks, I mean unrelenting dedication to consistency.
Sometimes the act of breaking a cycle, breaking convention and opening a new frame of reference for something you once saw another way can be very motivating. For example, why not reframe December each year as a period in which you are the most consistent and dedicated with your training? Why not arrive on January 1st lean, strong and feeling fantastic? It still doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Xmas, you are just flipping the way you see a period of time usually associated with indulgence and damage limitation. I’ll leave that with you.
Most Importantly Of All, Enjoy Yourself
Ultimately, what I’m getting at here is that there is no good reason not to enjoy Xmas, but the idea is not to loose the whole month in the name of a single day.
No matter where you are at the point of reading this article, I think our aim should be to arrive in January with goals not resolutions. The major difference being that goals are built on existing framework and a track record of implementation, they have a clear outcome and strategy. Whereas for the most part resolutions are based in regret and are the less serious, more fanciful cousins of goals, rooted in neither substance nor strategy.
Have a fantastic festive period and remember that real progress is all about consistency and balance. If you would like to discuss how I might be able to help you set and achieve some health & fitness goals for 2023, let’s jump on a call and outline a strategy and timeline for their completion