Over the next few weeks, everyone will be in too good a mood to care if they’re in bad shape.
Straight-faced adults start cooking with marshmallows. Limited edition beers have names like “Fa La La La La Winter Ale”. All in all, it’s a welcome and refreshing thing, a well-deserved decompression after another year of deadlines, bills, and news alerts that make you want to walk in the ocean.
But a little decompression can turn into creeping overkill if you’re not careful, which is a real shame, considering the month immediately following this one is most Americans’ personal fitness Super Bowl. Unsurprisingly, resolutions struggle when there’s still pecan pie sticking to your ribs.
Why should you care about your midsection when wearing an ugly sweater over it? Isn’t this a last minute mission for Memorial Day weekend? Well, core strength isn’t seasonal. And neither lower back pain, poor balance, nor poor posture, all of which are unfortunate by-products of an uncontrolled belly.
Perhaps the most wonderful time of the year is better time of year to monitor and refine your heart; as you’re unlikely to take off your shirt anytime soon, the endgame shifts from a superficial desire to show off the island of love abs to establish a consistent and sustainable routine that will pay dividends across the wellness spectrum.
From the culprits you probably want to avoid, to the burns that will help you burn them anyway, here’s a gift-wrapped guide to keeping your heart healthy during the peak holiday season.
Indulgences that will get you
Most wellness blogs publish annual “naughty lists” of foods you should never, under any circumstances, put on your plate. The inclusions aren’t particularly surprising. Think: sugar cookies, fruitcake, fudge, stuffing, sweet potato casserole, pigs in a blanket, turkey skin, etc. And yes, since it’s pretty much just butter in eight different ways, you should be wary of all of the above. They will certainly do you no favors on their own.
But instead of classifying foods as naughty or nice, it helps determine which ones energize you and which ones exhaust you. Of those who are more likely to stupefy you on the sofa, try to figure out the few that you really like, without which you cannot imagine the holidays. (I’m historically a fruitcake fiend.) Feel free to ignore others. And of your chosen treats, try not to eat the whole tray in one sitting.
It’s less beware, more… be aware. This is linked to a practice that dieticians call “intuitive eating”. You don’t have to flog yourself to hand over a bunch of peppermint bark. But it’s worth noticing (and remembering) how that choice may have impacted your afternoon.
Also relevant at this time of year? Liquid calories. A seasonal beer like Anchor Brewing’s annual offering or Great Lakes Christmas Ale is usually high in calories, sometimes over 200 for a beer. And a good glass of eggnog will push 400 calories.
When the liver is preoccupied with alcohol, it has a harder time burning fat, and that fat tends to accumulate around the belly. Too many beers will set back your main strength, period, and that’s not to mention the sleep debt that comes with a few weeks of festivities. Consider mixing in a few happy NA options here and there instead, which will free up your next morning and generally weigh less than 100 calories per pop.
Crunches ≠ the answer
Of all the basic exercises, crunches and sit-ups are an overrated relic. They should be left at the fifth-year presidential fitness test of yesteryear.
To put it bluntly, moving is a waste of time. The crunch, along with its cousin the sit-up (which has a greater range of motion – it’s where someone holds your feet), is more or less the most ubiquitous movement in abdominal training. . If you hit the gym at any time of the day, a sorry soul will be around knocking them out by the hundreds. But they also represent the work of the abs at their most pointless, as they encourage the myth of spot reduction (you can’t eliminate fat in just one part of the body) and pull on the flexors of the hip.
When I was younger I would complete full body workouts with 300 crunches. I loved it…because the crunches are the ultimate “counting exercise”. You can achieve a high level of repetitions without too much effort. (Compare that with the agony it took me to reach just 10 pull-ups.) But that’s because the articulate, momentum-fueled movement of the crunches lets you cheat and recruit your lumbar spine to knock each representative. It may make you feel quite accomplished, but over time it will also tighten/shorten your muscles and create pain from your lower back to your neck.
What should you do instead? Planks are a great place to start, as an isometric exercise that will target the entire core and can actually eliminate Back ache. (Check out our complete guide to planking here.) Meanwhile, moves like bike maneuvers, inverted crunches, Spiderman push-ups, ab halos, Russian rows, extended heel taps, V-sits, banana holds and something called black widow knee slides all provide dynamic, alternating moves that hit the abs, deep abs, obliques and thighs… all without causing trouble down the line.
Go ahead… or go one Little A little further
Trainers recommend training your core with abs-specific exercises twice a week, max, but if you train frequently (and properly) in other areas, you’re engaging your core all the time anyway.
Pairing compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses with versatile moves like farmer walks or racks will strengthen your core as an inevitable byproduct of building your chest, back or your shoulders. It’s a good thing. So if you don’t yet have a gym membership, but are planning on getting one, take advantage of these weeks to check out the local lay of the pitch…before a legion of wide-eyed stray arrives next month. (But don’t worry, there’s nothing to worry about.)
It’s also a great time of year to get into the habit of walking. Assuming you’re not Buddy’s father in Elf, you don’t have to prepare a pitch for “the board” on Christmas Eve, and you look forward to some time away from the office. Take it to your advantage. Opt for the constitutional that you lacked, at the rate of half an hour of walking each day.
It will improve your posture, which will strengthen your core in kind. You’ll probably find yourself in a better mood too. Consider that some of the coldest and darkest corners of the world are where people are best suited to enjoying the winter outdoors. They know better than anyone that movement is essential in the coming months. Hiding is fine, but we’re not supposed to hibernate.
If you really cling to opportunistic digestive hikes this season, consider taking them a little faster…and further. Unsurprisingly, running is dynamite for the trunk, capable of strengthening its muscles, stabilizing its joints and eliminating fat cells en masse. Cold-weather running is a particularly special edition of the activity, which can catalyze the conversion of white fat (the inflammatory fat linked to heart disease) to brown fat (natural fat that produces heat).
As a longtime runner, I recommend mixing up your cardio and starting slow. For “speed” sessions, head to a nearby track and run four laps, sprinting down the straights and jogging at the ends. For an endurance-focused fare, progress to a steady four-mile. Put on a podcast and wear gloves. Everything will be fine, and your core will be prodigious.
The eggnog is coming
It’s a tough sell for some, but incorporating wellness into such a festive part of the year doesn’t have to feel like a punishment. It can actually amplify the season, ultimately leaving you with more energy, focus, and patience. Finding an achievable fitness goal — like making sure your heart doesn’t go to shit — can keep progress going, while even giving you a head start for the year ahead.
Yes, shit (eggnog) is coming. Its good. But should the term “I survived the holidays” be so common in our lexicon? Probably not. And it doesn’t have to. Charles Dickens once wrote, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all year round. It is a noble quest. But if we’re going to respect all of humanity for every month of the year, let’s give the same respect to your abdomen.
This article was published in the Inside hook newsletter. Register now.
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