Most of us want to have a happy holiday season—those warm feels, delicious meals, and great company. But there’s one thing you might also feel, even if your holiday season checks all the most important boxes—stress. And you’re not alone.
More than six in ten people described the holidays as somewhat or very stressful, according to a 2015 survey of Healthline readers. Yikes. And that’s up from about 50 percent of people who reported stressful holidays in a 2002 study. So what’s stressing us out the most this holiday season? Other than money (shocker), Healthline readers were feeling extra pressure around healthy eating and exercise as their biggest holiday concerns.
Kick Your Holiday Stress with Exercise
Truth: Some stress in the holiday season might be unavoidable, but stressing about your fitness doesn’t need to be part of that. In fact, there are some straightforward ways to use your fitness routine as a happiness booster and a buffer against stress, rather than a cause of it. So you won’t be stressing about something that can actually bust your stress.
Let’s take a look at why exercise helps keep holiday stress levels low, according to science. Then we’ll give you two tips for keeping the sweat in your season. Because we all deserve to have a happy holiday, even if there is a little chaos. You with us?
How Exercise Boosts Happiness and Beats Stress
Exercise is so overwhelmingly good for the body and mind that the research sometimes feels like a never-ending list of its benefits. But that’s a good thing because it means that science backs up this stress-busting technique as a way to have a happy holiday. Here are a few highlights from the National Institutes of Health:
- Boosts self-esteem
- Improves cognitive function
- Ups quality of sleep
K, but what about more immediate benefits? We’ve got that too. Exercise boosts both your energy and your happiness through the release of nutrients in your body and chemicals in your brain, notes the Mayo Clinic.
Probably most relevant to the holiday season is the direct role exercise plays in buffering against stress. A 2017 study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that exercise and stress have a somewhat complicated two-way relationship. First, the good news—on days when participants exercised for 30 minutes or more, they reported significantly lower levels of stress. Now, the tricky part—it turns out that participants’ anticipated levels of stress got in the way of their fitness routines.
So, on the days when they would benefit from its stress-buffering effects the most, participants were actually less likely to find time to work out. We’re not so great at this whole taking care of ourselves thing, are we? In light of these findings, we need a strategy that will help us stick to our fitness routines even on days we think will be stressful. Like those hectic holidays.
How to Have a Happy Holiday: 2 Tricks to Fit in Fitness
It’s pretty clear that exercise is a great way to reduce your stress and boost your happiness. But how can you make sure to stick to your fitness routine and have a happy holiday for real?
1. Willpower sucks and you don’t need it
First things first, relying on sheer willpower is definitely not the best approach. Researchers are moving away from the concept of willpower as evidence piles up that our environment plays a more important role in our day-to-day behavior. When it comes to the holidays, it’s no surprise that we fall out of our normal fitness routines then. The pace of the season is probably a little different than your average day, week, or month. Unless you’re always party-hopping and treat-devouring, in which case, rage on.
Helpfully, Peter Gollwitzer and other researchers have come up with straightforward ways to use your environment to make it easier to stick to good habits—like exercising. By tying good habits to environmental cues, we can reduce the effort it takes to make progress toward our goals. The idea is to make the good habits automatic.
We’ve talked habit-building before (and we will again), but here’s a quick way to think about it. Follow this formula and tweak the wording if you need to:
Whenever situation x arises, I will do the behavior y.”
For example, you might decide that whenever you see Home Alone on TV this season (which will be at minimum 20 times, let’s be real), it’s time to bust out a 15-minute bodyweight workout. You can also attach your fitness routine to another part of your day that you can’t, or probably shouldn’t, skip, like a meal or a daily shower.
It’s super simple, but the crucial step of linking a goal to a specific situational cue strongly boosts the likelihood of achieving it. So jot down some if-thens around your fitness routine to make it happen.
2. Think specific and realistic
Now is probably not the best time to begin a new and ambitious fitness program. Instead, choose a fitness routine that you know from experience works for you. Ideally, it’s one that you’re already doing; you’re just tweaking it to make it work for the holidays.
If you’re traveling a lot this holiday season, choose a routine that doesn’t require much (or any) equipment, such as body resistance exercises or workout videos you can do indoors. This way, you won’t have to do any extra thinking, planning, or searching for space when it’s time to work out.
Don’t forget about time. The holidays are typically time-crunched, so a full hour of cardio kickboxing might not be the most realistic approach. Keep two or three go-to workouts in your back pocket that are quick, equipment-free, and don’t take up a lot of space. Look at you being prepared.
Enjoy the stress-buffering and happiness-boosting effects
We hope these tips will turn a source of potential seasonal stress and guilt—exercise—into a source of joy and stability to help you have a happy holiday season no matter what. Or at least keep you from tearing your hair out when your relatives show. Hey, we never said it could fix everything. Happy HIITing.
Your turn: How does exercise help you have a happy holiday season? What’s your favorite way of fitting in fitness this time of year? Tell us more in the comments.
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.