Let Yourself Go, But Do It Right
There's a fine line between dialing back exercise during the holidays and losing your fitness altogether
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
The holidays are here. It’s peak off-season time. You want to relax and recover—both physically and mentally—but not so much that it will take you the better part of next year to work your way back to where you finished this one. It’s about threading the needle.
In behavioral science, there’s something called the what-the-hell effect (really!). It describes situations where you’ve been so rigid and disciplined that when you give in just a little, you can’t help but decide you might as well go all the way: I already ate one piece of cheesecake. What the hell, I might as well eat the whole thing. Two bourbons tasted good and warmed my chest. What the hell, I might as well have four. As a rule, you want to avoid this effect. You definitely don’t want all of December to be one long what the hell.
The internet will be buzzing with articles and essays and videos and strategies on how to get through the holidays. My advice: Ignore it all. What is supposed to be a celebratory time of year shouldn’t seem daunting. Just follow these basic principles and you’ll be fine.
Do Something Active Every Morning
What you do first thing sets the tone for the day. If you move your body, you’ll both feel good and send yourself a visceral message that you care about feeling good. This will help you make smart decisions later in the day.
It doesn’t have to be much, says Michael Joyner, an internationally acclaimed expert on human performance. “A rule of thumb I use for the holidays is to get up and do 30 minutes of something active first thing,” he says. “The only goal is not to go backwards, or at least not too far. A few days, or even a week, of barely doing anything is fine—so long as you do something.”
If your body is beat down from a long year of training, even just stretching or light yoga goes a long way. This is every bit as much about keeping some semblance of a routine and the message you are sending to your brain—“I care about feeling good, so let’s not go too crazy later”—as it is about what you’re doing for your body.
When You Let Yourself Go, Savor the Experience
“We know from research that happiness is not just in the moment,” says Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and author of The Willpower Instinct. “We derive maximum pleasure and meaning from the things we can look forward to, including the planning and anticipating, and look back on, including talking about it with people we shared the experience with or even just revisiting it in our memory.” Inhaling a bunch of cookies at the office is not the same thing as baking them with family and friends and then eating them over conversation and tea. Pounding shots of whiskey isn’t the same thing as sipping it while listening to your favorite music and reclining in a comfortable chair by the fire. Choose the latter, McGonigal says. Doing so will extend the joy you get from the experience.
Don’t Judge Yourself
There is an elegant Buddhist parable that teaches you to “not let the arrow hit you twice.” The first arrow—be it a negative thought, feeling, event, or situation—you can’t always control. And even if you could, sometimes you simply drop the ball. But you can control the second arrow, or your reaction to the first one. So often, this takes the form of denial, resistance, judgment, and loathing. It’s often the second arrow that hurts worse and prevents you from doing anything wise about the first one.
If you overeat or overdrink or get too in depth on politics with your grumpy uncle, the worst thing you can do is beat yourself up for it. Research shows that judging yourself for a behavior you regret makes you more likely to repeat that behavior in the future, because it becomes an escape from feeling the shame that you laid onto yourself. Don’t let the arrow hit you twice. If you mess up, acknowledge that you messed up and then let it go.
Set a Deadline, and Be Patient upon Your Return
Pick a day on which you’ll get back into your rhythm. For most of us, this is January 1 or 2. But here’s the thing: Don’t expect yourself to just magically snap back, physically or mentally. Reestablishing your groove takes time. It’s helpful to think of the holiday season as taking a few steps back now so you can move forward over the long term. “Giving yourself some slack without guilt can help you renew your passion or commitment with a sense of enthusiasm,” McGonigal says.
Also, a word to the wise from personal experience: When you are getting back into things, be patient. Resist the temptation to engage in what I call “panic training,” or suddenly putting forth heroic efforts to try forcing yourself back into prime fitness overnight. This road leads in one direction: to injury, illness, and subsequently worse fitness.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the bestselling book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.