Christmas-themed exercises can help prevent holiday inactivity and weight gain

LONDON — Can Christmas carols and working out go hand-in-hand? An exercise “Advent calendar” could help get people off the sofa and shed a few pounds during the holidays, a new study finds.

Participants enjoyed the activities, which included “abdominal snowman” sit ups and a “Christmas deliveries” walk, which suggests people would welcome public health campaigns to keep them fit during the holidays. Physical activity is an important way of stopping diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, yet activity levels remain low in many countries.

The holiday season is a particularly risky period for weight gain. Evidence suggests people put on between one and two pounds during the holidays, but it’s been unclear whether holiday-based physical activity can stop this.

Researchers at Loughborough University decided to test whether a plan of Christmas-themed exercises during Advent (a period of four weeks leading up to Christmas) would be feasible and effective. Exercises included “Star” jumps, “Dasher the reindeer” sprints, “10 lords-a-leaping” rope skips, “Lay the table” planks, and “Rocking around the Christmas tree” Christmas song dances.

Each exercise had three intensity levels — Easy Elf (low intensity), Moderate Mrs. Claus (moderate intensity), and Strenuous Santa (high intensity). Participants were free to choose the intensity level each day.

A workout calendar keeps people on track

In the first two weeks, both groups did around the same amount of daily exercise. In the third week, however, the intervention group reported doing 21 more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day. They also reported doing just over half a day more of muscle strengthening exercises per week.

Accelerometer data showed that the intervention group did more minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity (15 minutes), light intensity physical activity (22 minutes), and total physical activity (37 minutes), than the control group during the study period.

On average, people in the intervention group also spent almost an hour (59 minutes) less sitting down per day than people in the control group. Overall, 70 percent of participants in the intervention group said they liked the intervention and 69 percent of them reported that they completed the Active Advent intervention ideas each day.

Of these, 30 percent completed Easy Elf, 21 percent chose Moderate Mrs. Claus, and 18 percent completed Strenuous Santa. For the study, the team recruited 107 adult Brits who do not do the recommended amount of exercise from government health guidelines. They were recruited from social media, workplaces, and community groups in November 2021.

Holiday fun can reduce sedentary behavior

Nearly nine in 10 (88%) were white women. They had an average age of 46 and 56 percent of them were either overweight or obese. Participants were randomly assigned to the intervention group of 71 people, or the control group of 36 people. They were emailed a Christmas-themed activity idea every day between Dec. 1 and Christmas Eve 2021. The control group simply read a guide about healthy living.

All participants filled in an online questionnaire to report how many minutes they spent doing moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity per week and how many days they performed muscle-strengthening exercises per week. Around half of the participants in both groups wore an accelerometer (a gadget that tracks the volume and intensity of physical activity) on their wrist 24 hours a day for the duration of the study. People who did the exercises were also asked to rate how much they enjoyed them and recount which activity at which intensity they did each day.

“The public were interested to engage in a Christmas themed physical activity intervention, which also reduced sedentary time and showed promise for increasing participation in physical activity,” the study authors write in a media release.

“Enjoyment of, and adherence to the intervention shows that the public would welcome public health campaigns to help them become more physically active and less sedentary during the holiday season.”

The findings are published in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.

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