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How to Keep Your Body and Mind Healthy During the Holiday Season

Regular exercise can combat stress, winter blues and balance holiday excess

Posted in: Education, Faculty Voices, Homepage News, Human Services

Weight room in a gym

All those articles and advice you may see this holiday season about burning off Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas cookies?

Ignore them – regular overindulgence over a period of weeks or months can indeed affect weight and body fat, but Evan Matthews, associate professor of Exercise Science and Physical Education, says overeating during a single meal won’t impact your body in a significant way.

Instead, make a plan to stay active throughout the winter – not just when you feel “guilty” for having a few too many glasses of eggnog. Here, Matthews shares tips on maintaining consistent physical activity during the colder months to balance out the big dinners, toasts and holiday treats.

How to exercise safely during winter

  • Dress in layers when exercising outside. Remove one layer at a time as you feel hot – the goal is to be warm, but to avoid excessive sweating, which can increase the likelihood of hypothermia.
  • Avoid early morning or late evening workouts on cold days, and avoid inclement weather like rain, snow and strong wind. Middle of the day workouts are best, due to higher temperatures and better visibility, but if your schedule doesn’t allow it and you must exercise in the morning or evening, wear reflective clothing and lights.

Simple ways to stay active when it’s cold out

  • Work out at home. Investing in at-home exercise equipment will reduce the barriers to exercise associated with the “need to go to the gym” mentality.
  • No equipment? No problem. Cardiorespiratory and resistance exercise can include walking, running and bodyweight calisthenics.

Stay motivated to exercise even during cold, dark weather

  • Schedule it into your existing routine instead of rearranging your entire life around exercise. Adults should accumulate 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity cardiorespiratory exercise per week. “Cardiorespiratory exercise can be broken up throughout the day into 10-minute chunks rather than all at once,” says Matthews. “This makes it easier to get your walking and other forms of exercise in during short breaks throughout the day.”
  • Stay indoors. Joining a fitness facility in the winter avoids the cold and darkness of winter, says Matthews, and has the added benefit of improving feelings of social connectedness if you acquire friends and acquaintances at the gym. This greatly increases your likelihood of maintaining your exercise routine. And on that note…
  • Find an exercise buddy. Developing in-person or virtual social relationships around your exercise habits promotes exercise adherence.

Physical activity is different in cold temperatures

  • Wear warmer clothing and extend the length of your warmups before a workout. “Increasing muscle and body temperatures decreases muscle and joint stiffness, increases enzyme activity related to metabolism, and improves oxygen delivery to your muscles,” says Matthews. Cold exposure can directly affect superficial muscles’ ability to contract by essentially numbing the muscle.
  • Those with asthma should have rescue medication with them when exercising in the cold, and use preventative treatments. The respiratory tract warms and humidifies the cold dry air we breathe in the winter so for most people, breathing the cold air should not be a major concern. However, for people who participate in cold weather sports where they exercise intensely in the cold several months a year, exercise-induced asthma rates are as high as one in two athletes. Matthews says the constant dry air exposure combined with high respiratory rates is thought to be the culprit.

Focus on the health benefits of exercise

  • Good for the body… “Exercise is well known to improve physical health outcomes, including reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat and insulin resistance. These all decrease the likelihood or severity of many cardiometabolic diseases,” says Matthews. Adopting an exercise plan incorporating moderate intensity and duration will also improve the function of your body and help ward off sickness during winter.
  • …and the mind. Studies strongly suggest that exercise can “reduce anxiety and depression in everyone regardless of the severity of your symptoms,” he says. “In fact, cardiorespiratory exercise has proven to be as effective as psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy in treating depression. Exercise can also be used in conjunction with other mental health treatments to improve anxiety and depression, including conditions like seasonal affective disorder.”
  • Don’t overdo it. “Highly intense or very long exercise sessions increase the risk of becoming sick because they can suppress your immune function for a short period of time,” says Matthews, noting that it’s not uncommon for people to develop a cold in the days immediately after completing a marathon. If you do get sick, avoid exercise when your symptoms are below the neck (chest congestion, fever, and body aches). For symptoms in the head and neck, a conservative approach would call for lowering exercise intensity or duration to prevent excessive fatigue, soreness, or worsening illness. “However, this is a personal judgement call based on the severity of your symptoms, and your planned training intensity and duration.”

Make exercise a year-round activity

Evan Matthews
Evan Matthews

Matthews’ tips for creating an active routine of cardiorespiratory and resistance exercise can be maintained all year long. “The positive impacts on physical and mental health are greatest with long term exercise adoption,” he says. “And some of the most basic forms of exercise can not only help you during the holidays, but help you throughout the year.”

To interview Evan Matthews, please contact the Media Relations team.