Not to brag, but last year I burned 900 calories on Christmas Day. Stuck in London because of lockdown, my friend Abi and I decided to embrace the strangeness of it all and head to Hampstead Heath Ponds for a freezing festive dip.
After that teeth-chattering two-minute swim and a 16-mile round trip by bike (because the Tube wasn’t running), I enjoyed a massive endorphin high and proceeded to devour all my favourite festive foods without the slightest hint of guilt.
The benefits of festive fitness
For many people, the motivation for getting active on Christmas is to put a dent in the “6,000-odd calories they’re about to eat,” says James Griffiths, personal trainer and founder of Wild Training. So does a workout also help to fire up your metabolism?
“It does,” Griffiths says. “A physiological benefit that we get from exercise is that you’ll burn more oxygen throughout the day after doing something like a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout and that’s going to help burn some fat.”
As well as the physical effects, workouts can help counteract any festive stress you might be feeling, perhaps if you’re hosting a family get-together or are forced to spend time with your least-favourite relatives.
“Exercise changes our blood on a molecular level to help us deal with stress,” Griffiths explains. “Activities that are most linked to helping people with stress and anxiety are things that require a little bit of skill,” for example a HIIT workout or strength training.
“Maybe even something like a kettlebell type workout, or maybe there’s a barbell hanging about after everybody bought them during lockdown.”
Then there’s the social aspect of activities that can be done together, like a Christmas morning dip if you’re near a wild swimming spot or a ‘Santa dash’ run complete with Father Christmas costumes.
“Walking is massively underrated as a form of exercise,” says Griffiths. “It’s really good for people not just to be active, but to be active outdoors with people – that’s going be a really good way of starting the day with really positive energy.”
Alternatively, an afternoon walk can help stave off the inevitable post-turkey food coma and is “an effective way of rebalancing your blood sugar, rebalancing your energy so you can carry on and enjoy the rest of the evening.”
The case against Christmas workouts
While there are plenty of benefits to working out on Christmas Day, the truth is you’d have to do an awful lot of exercise to burn the thousands of calories many people consume via a huge turkey (or veggie) dinner, wine, pudding, and all the other treats we allow ourselves.
“The idea of having an impact on what you’re about to eat? Yeah, it’s not going to touch the sides!” says Griffiths, and he suggests if you’re feeling particularly guilty about all the festive indulgence, use it as motivation to get in gear after the holidays.
“I’d use the time to go, ‘You know what, I don’t have to fix myself on Christmas Day. I probably just need to fix myself a plan for 2022’.”
You definitely don’t want to be doing a strenuous HIIT session right after lunch, he continues: “Your body’s wildly intuitive, so if you do anything too bouncy you’re going to struggle… it’s going to give you a stitch and a lot of discomfort.”
There are some forms of exercise you can safely do on Christmas Day, and Griffiths would never criticise anyone who chooses to do a workout, but ultimately there’s no harm in making December 25 a rest day.
He says: “It’s no bad thing for somebody to be aware of their health. At the same time, you know, we’ve not had enough family time and friends time over the last 18 months, so make the most of it.”