Unwrap your best holiday health: Ways to keep moving from Thanksgiving through those New Year’s Celebration

“Take care of your body. It’s the one place you have to live.”–Jim Rohn

This is my fifth installment of celebrating and encouraging movement for everyone.  If you’ve read my previous pieces, you already know that my goal is fairly simple.  I want to encourage everyone to move more in whatever manner works best for you, your body, and your schedule.  I do not believe in one-size fits all when it comes to fitness and health goals.  Instead, I am writing to explore techniques, habits, and motivations for incorporating more movement into life, even during the upcoming holiday season.

Why should you consider maintaining your movement/exercise routine during the weeks of Thanksgiving through the New Year celebration?  There are many possible reasons, but only you can decide your why(s).  Personally, it allows me to feel as if I have accomplished one positive thing for the day.  If everything else derails throughout the day, at least I exercised–even if it had to be for a reduced amount of time.  However, there are so many more valid reasons.

Photo by Julia Larson on Pexels.com

Increased movement and exercise is one positive way to combat the stress that often accompanies this season.  Although stress isn’t a disease, per se, it is the body’s physical, mental, and emotional responses to external events, especially change, which often occur from Thanksgiving through the New Year celebrations. High levels of holiday stress can detrimentally impact mental health.  However, being physically active throughout the holidays is a proven technique to significantly reduce stress levels.

Along the same lines, exercise during the holiday season can provide structure to your schedule. If you have already committed to moving more throughout your day/week, and you have already been consistently applying it, then continuing to follow through with that plan builds at least a sense of familiarity and comfort.  Even if you have to reduce your time and/or days for physical activity, there is at least that semblance of reassurance that you are choosing to still take care of yourself, which can increase the likelihood of making another healthier choice throughout your day/week.

Photo by Barbara Olsen on Pexels.com

As counterintuitive as it may seem, exercise gives you more energy during the holidays.  Harvard Health explains it this way. Increased movement and exercise increases oxygen circulation, which in turn, allows your body to energy more efficiently and therefore function better.  Furthermore, exercise increases cellular level changes, including augmenting the production of mitochondria inside your muscle cells. Having more mitochondria translates to your body possessing an adequate energy supply.  Plus, exercise boosts the production of the feel-good hormones that likewise make you feel more energetic.

Exercise and increased movement is a proven way to combat anxiety and depression, often associated with the holiday season. Let’s be honest, for many people, the holidays often serve as a reminder of loved ones and traditions lost to the past.  For others, the increased requirements for more socialization, or so-called holiday-expectations, can trigger the desire to curl up in a fetal position and hide until the season is over.  Furthermore, increased levels of darkness often precipitate seasonal affective disorders (SAD), a form of depression that affects approximately 10 million people annually. Physical activity is a proven method for reducing symptoms by releasing endorphins that increase positive feelings.  

Physical activity can reduce increased sedentary behavior associated with late fall and winter months. Colder and/or inclement weather can reduce motivation to get outside and move. It’s only natural to want to stay in and watch sporting events, stream series, or watch old movies while noshing your way through comfort food snacks and often calorie laden beverages.  While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these behaviors, too much inactivity is not beneficial to the body, mind, and even spirit.  A commitment to physical activity, even if it is laps around your house on commercial breaks during sporting events or between streaming episodes will go a long way promoting your overall well-being.

Photo by Andres Ayrton on Pexels.com

In spite of all of these benefits, it can still feel challenging to maintain that fitness plan or movement goals you have established for yourself in previous months.  However, there are ways that can help you overcome obstacles.  The key is finding the ones that work for you as no one method/approach works for everyone.

Walk, march, or even jog around the neighborhood, if weather permits, or inside your house.  Even walking, marching, or jogging in place is beneficial!  If you don’t have time for your usual amount of time, such as 20 or 30 minutes, break it up into smaller time periods spread throughout the day.  If that isn’t possible, even one shorter burst of activity is better than none!

Consider exercising with an app, DVD, or streaming platform.  There are numerous apps and platforms that are free or reasonably priced.  In fact, you can even look up “holiday themed workouts” on Youtube lasting anywhere from 10-30+ minutes!

Inexpensive, portable exercise equipment are the perfect solution when traveling.

Invest in personal, home exercise equipment for use during inclement weather, traveling, or when short on time. Resistance bands and tubing, jump ropes, and exercise mats  are inexpensive, and easy to transport when traveling and/or visiting family/friends. The bands/tubing come in different sizes and resistant levels and require little training.  In fact, most come with a workout plan or can be found online.

Think outside the box, but keep it simple: 

  • Wake up 15-20 minutes earlier for a short movement period.  
  • Be mindful of the number of steps you take throughout the day, and challenge yourself to complete more than the day before.  
  • Wear exercise shoes when shopping and add power walk breaks in between stores or consider more frequent walks to your parked car after a store visit to stow away bags. 
  • Rethink your lunchtime, if your job allows, and use it as an opportunity for a short walk.
  • Challenge a fitness buddy to hold each other accountable to a realistic daily or weekly goal.
  • Complete bodyweight exercises throughout the day, such as push-ups against desk, body weight squats and lunges, chair tricep dips, twists, stretch, and so forth.  You might get a whole body workout by the day’s end!
  • Set realistic expectations and plan accordingly.  Consider reducing time/numbers of days per week, and then make a commitment to those.
  • Make movement part of the family/friend traditions if possible.  A family walk or dance session after a big holiday meal can not only improve digestion, but take the edge of any accumulated stress.
  • Make a holiday playlist.  It doesn’t have to be holiday music.  Instead, create a special playlist that motivates you when your energy is low.
  • Make sleep a priority too.  A well rested body moves with greater ease.
  • Hydrate consistently.  (Think of all the added sodium in those holiday treats.)

The holidays do not have to derail your exercise/movement routine.  There’s only one you and one body in which you live.  Therefore, think of physical activity during the holidays as the one gift you can give to yourself.  With a bit of flexibility, creative thinking, and determined mindset, you can continue to unwrap better health, one step, or choice of movement, at a time. 

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

The realness of depression and anxiety

Speaking with a child recently, she spoke to me of the very real pain she felt from her depression and anxiety.  She shared that one of her parents was embarrassed by her need for medication and therapy.  My heart broke for her, and I wished I could make her pain go away.  However, it is not that simple, and all I could do at the time was listen, so she felt heard.   

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

The pain of depression, combined with the constant worry of anxiety is very real.  In fact, most of us have felt depressed at some point to a lesser or greater degree, depending upon circumstances.  In fact, my own experiences have been fairly short-lived, no more than 1-2 years, and I was able to continue on with work/life/education, albeit with great difficulty.  For some, it is a challenging seasonal event, tied to the anniversary of an event, holiday, or winter months. However, for many, depression, and its side-kick anxiety, is pervasive, lasting two or more years.

According to a March 2022 World Health Organization report, since the pandemic, there has been a 25% increase in the prevalence of depression and anxiety world wide, with young people and women having been most affected.  In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health adds that young people, aged 18-25, currently have the highest prevalence of mental illness, a whopping 30.6%.  Furthermore, in another WHO report, globally speaking, one in seven adolescents, aged 10-19, are currently experiencing some form of mental illness. Specifically, in the US, the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists reports that one in five youth, aged 9-17 years, are experiencing a diagnosable mental illness.  More sobering, acccording to the same report, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 years old.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As an educator, parent, and most of all, as a fellow human being, my heart breaks reading these statistics.  It only confirms what I am witnessing and encountering on a daily basis.  More teens and young adults with whom I come into contact on a regular basis are in real pain–whether I am aware of their mental anguish or not.  The most common mental illness among teens and young adults according to several health organizations include generalized anxiety, phobias, and depression.

However, it is not all grim.  Mental illness, especially among teens and young adults, is very treatable and manageable.  There are a wide-array of techniques and support systems designed to address the unique needs of each individual case, no matter the age. 

Treatment often starts with some form of psychotherapy, also known as counseling or therapy.  Therapy may last for only a short period, or over several years, depending upon the person.  It may focus on thoughts and feelings regarding current life, issues in the past, as well as concerns about the future.  Through therapy, the person not only feels supported and less isolated, but typically develops strategies and coping skills designed to address current mental health issues.  Additionally, therapy may also include ways to develop/strengthen specific relationships, overcome fears/insecurities, address past traumas, increase self-compassion and understanding, as well as create a plan for moving forward.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Medication is often another form of treatment used in tandem with therapy, but it does require monitoring of a psychiatrist or other trained medical doctor.  The most commonly used medications prescribed for depression and anxiety are safe and effective ways to treat mental illness.  Unfortunately, the wait times for such professionals, especially in recent times, can be months long.  

As a result, many school counselors, universities, family doctors, and churches/civic/community centers are stepping up their support for those in need of mental health support. Many universities offer access to free, or nearly, services via in-person, videolink, or phone.  Some church, civic, and community leaders are pooling services to likewise offer hotlines, group therapies, or other activities designed to promote and support mental health. 

Even once a person is diagnosed and in-treatment, progress takes time, and there can set-backs, as well as ups and downs, in the process; however, certain factors do help facilitate treatment/recovery.  These include:

  • Positive support from friends and family
  • Self-direction in determining own direction and goals for recovery
  • Positive environment living/working/educational setting
  • Financial stability
  • Self-responsibility to administer self care needs
The road for treatment, therapy, and recovery may be long and winding with ups and down, but with the right support and environment, a positive outcome can be achieved.

It is worth remembering that the therapy process is unique to each individual.  Those in therapy may not return to where they were before the illness.  Rather, the typical goal of therapy/medication is to increase a person’s ability to manage their own mental health using positive methods/coping strategies while still engaging with life.  

In the meantime, what can mere mortals do to foster and improve our own mental health? Ireland’s Public Health Agency offers five simple ways worth considering in order to maintain and improve our mental well being.  These include:

  • Connect-invest time in building relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and/or neighbors.
  • Be active– this doesn’t necessarily mean joining a gym, although it could, rather the focus is to move more, especially throughout your day, including walking
  • Keep learning-this boosts self-esteem and self-confidence as well as keeps the mind actively engaged
  • Take notice-increase awareness of the present moment; observe–without judgment–how thoughts and feelings fluctuate throughout the day, and how they may, or may not, affect the physical body
  • Give to others-acts of kindness, no matter how big or small, go a long way in helping others and positively impact personal mental well-being.

Mental illness is a very real thing, affecting nearly 50 million people in the United States, but there is hope. If you are experiencing mental health issues, do not be afraid to seek or ask for help.  And, please know that you are NOT alone. 

Furthermore, if you know someone who is suffering from a mental health issue, support them, offer forms of encouragement, and above all, let them know you care.  With so many silent sufferers in the world, it is more important than ever for us to be the light for one another.  

Now, more than ever, it is important to be the light for others with kind gestures, words, and deeds. ✨