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Stressed About the Holidays? Don’t Ditch the Workout!

Nov 20, 2016

Tis’ the season, that time of year where three major holidays come to dominate our schedules for a solid six weeks. That six-week period, for some, means the beginning of a near-constant barrage of extras: extra cleaning, extra shopping, extra cooking, extra gatherings etc. Gone are the days of Thanksgiving and winter breaks we enjoyed as children, now all the festivities and their related activities need to be crammed into our daily adult-world schedules. Even those who do get away from the office for a holiday vacation have their timetables fill up rapidly as well.

The American Psychological Association tabbed lack of time as the number one stressor on Americans this time of year. As a result of the time crunch, activities deemed expendable tend to get cut. One commonly cut activity: exercise. With all that goes on in the course of a day this time of year, the idea of skipping planned exercise to free up an hour may seem like an attractive option, but doing so can carry some unintended biological consequences. Namely, what we usually see is an increase in indicators associated with a long-term stress response. So trying to relieve stress on your day by cutting a workout may actually be keeping your body stuck in a state of stress. In order to relief such stress, it is important to stay active.

The link between stress and cardiovascular disease is nothing new, but the effect of exercise on this link has yet to be fully understood. Short-term and long-term psychological stress, share some very important signs as cardiovascular disease. A new study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise ventured another look at these signs. With a sample of 200 individuals, the researchers focused on nine individual factors known to influence the risk of cardiovascular disease (cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, BMI, and the free blood protein inflammation marker HbA1c protein) and total cardiometabolic risk score based on the combined score of the nine individual factors. All of the above have been linked to both stress and cardiovascular disease.

Subjects completed a validated questionnaire to assess his or her individual stress levels and were then assessed on their respective cardiovascular fitness using a common sub-maximal stationary cycling test. Finally, blood was drawn to assess the subjects’ cardiovascular risk profile. After analysis, the researchers did find a very significant moderating effect between exercise, and the relationship between stress and some cardiovascular risk factors specifically LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and total cardiometabolic risk score as seen below.

Take a look at the black bars under the high stress side of each of the graphs. What they portray is this: in a high-stress individual, having a high fitness level had a substantial mitigating effect on the numbers for each of the three risk factors presented. There were also more moderate links to improved risk factor scores in highly stressed individuals for total cholesterol, and HbA1c as well.

These same cardiometabolic risk factors have been shown in many past studies to increase as stress increases, and noticeable worsening in some risk factors are seen after only two weeks of no (or severely decreased)physical activity. Given we are in the midst of a stress-filled time of year, cutting exercise to save some time may not be the best option out there, and can in fact be a vital part in helping you keep your body and mind healthy throughout this holiday season, and it’s helpful to have a plan of action on hand to keep exercise on the schedule. Need some help getting started? Here are some things to try:

Make a plan, and let other people know

If a plan is made to exercise at a certain time, stick to it; treat it like you would a scheduled appointment. It helps if those times are in similar windows from day-to-day, as this will help it become a routine activity. Now almost inevitably there will be conflicts. Looking ahead (way ahead) can help you anticipate these conflicts and adjust accordingly. Try to identify as many as you can. The second part of planning is to communicate the plan. If there is another engagement that might come close to cutting in to your normal exercise time, let the other people involved know that you had already decided to get your physical activity for the day right before. This is to guard against any surprise rescheduling that may threaten your workout time. This way, you have a better chance of keeping that timeframe clear.

This is especially relevant if you are hosting family (or other family is hosting you) for a few days. Make sure your hosts or guests know of your daily morning walk at 9 am, should be taking into account when planning activities. No need to be bullish when asking for an hour or so in the morning to exercise, but being sheepish and not communicating can leave your schedule exposed to surprise invasive activities because others are under the impression you have that hour free.

Invite others to join

With all the outings that get proposed in holiday planning, why can’t a group exercise session be one? Invite others out on your walk, jog, or bike ride. Also, poke around for some holiday deals for fitness classes. Can be done with family and friends alike.

Do as much on foot as possible

Traveling for the holidays? Make sure to get some on-foot sight seeing in. Even if you’ve been going to the same place for the holidays for years, there’s bound to still be some corner of town you haven’t checked out yet. Staying at home? Maybe take a drive to an area with a fun holiday display. Maryland has some good ones.

Take what comes

Be committed, but also be realistic. Life sometimes throws you a curveball that you can’t control. So in situations like that, don’t let a missed workout pile on more stress. If you’re really in a time crunch and you can’t do your usual exercise, cut it down to fit the time you have right then, or better yet break it up into bouts if you know you will have another small window of time later. Be flexible, and be mindful of what you’re body is telling you. Know what to dial back on the intensity (or ask your trainer to) if you’re completely wiped out from whatever holiday prep you decided to squeeze into your day, or if you catch that holiday cold that could decide to pop up this year.

Bonus stress tip: Calming music

Calming, slow tempo music accelerates heart rate recovery post-exercise, and even helps clean some of the byproducts of exercise out of the blood stream faster. After exercise, or after a crazy holiday shopping outing, take ten minutes and put on something slow you know will put you in a calmer state of mind. Preferably something instrumental, as the lack of lyrics allows your mind to fill in that gap with its own calming imagery.

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