Christmas is usually one of the most sedentary times of year. The obligatory social commitments, extra shopping and meals which keep us sitting down at the table for hours mean that we have to forget our normal exercise regimes and abandon healthy lifestyle habits. Does it matter? Well, experts agree that no lasting harm will be done if we skip our normal routine for a couple of weeks, but it is a good idea to do some sort of physical exercise even if it is just for a few minutes a day. The most recent scientific studies have shown that an occasional burst of high-intensity exercise is like a Christmas gift for our health.
“It is important to be flexible and have a healthy relationship with exercise, where you don’t feel forced to do it but you don’t give it up altogether,” says personal trainer Sara Tabares. “For example, let’s imagine I live abroad but I have come to see my family for four days. Do I have to follow the same exercise plan that I do at home? No, because not training for four to seven days is one thing, but abandoning it for three weeks or a month is different. Looking after yourself doesn’t have to be an effort. We shouldn’t feel guilty because we didn’t train on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve,” she says.
As the festive season normally lasts for two or three weeks of the year, now is a good time to look at the options, and don’t worry - they are backed by science. “Research has shown that small episodes of intensive exercise can help to counter some of the negative results of long periods of inactivity,” Tabares says.
A study led by the Charles Perkins Centre at Sydney University in Australia measured those benefits. “Three or four episodes of energetic activity lasting just a few minutes help to reduce the risk of premature death, especially through cardiovascular illness,” the report said.
Ismael Galancho, a physical trainer and nutritionist, agrees that these short periods of exercise are beneficial for health.
“We talk about the benefits of intermittent fasting, but people should also be aware that intermittent exercise has favourable effects for the health of people with a sedentary lifestyle. A lot can be achieved with short bursts of activity,” he explains. “You don’t need to spend an hour or two in the gym to keep fit; that’s all very well but it costs more and we feel guilty if we don’t go,” he says. And during the festive season it is even more difficult to find the time to go to the gym.
“What we want to do at this time of year is intensive exercise for a minute, or two or three minutes, after every two hours of inactivity. That takes hardly any time at all,” he explains.
For example, if we are at home we could stop cooking for a moment and do “a series of short and simple strengthening exercises,” says Sara Tabares. The rhythm could be: “20 seconds full out and stop. Then another 20 seconds, until the magical two or three minutes are up,” Galancho says.
“Situps, squats with jumps, lunges, skipping, push-ups, all those types of exercise can be done in this way,” these experts agree.
On a day of Christmas shopping, for example, include a bit of speed walking: 30 seconds fast, 30 seconds slower, and repeat two or three times. Or go up a flight of steps three at a time, for example.
“Over Christmas we can do these micro exercises as a family or with a group of friends , says Sara Tabares”. The advantage is that it doesn’t need a change of clothes, or a trip to the gym or any equipment.
“The best exercise is the one that you do, and if these micro-training sessions mean that people continue to be active during their holidays, then that can only be a good thing,” she says.