There are a lot of things I miss about childhood, things that give me nostalgia this time of year.
- I miss thinking the rain was cozy.
- I miss having the time to curl up on the couch with warm cider and a food magazine, drooling over the comfort-food recipes inside.
- I miss when being tired meant you got to take a nap.
- And finally, I miss the days when what I’m about to say was still “cute.”
Hi, my name is Natalie.
It is November 1st, and I’ve already started listening to Christmas music.
There, I said it.
Yes it might be early, but for me Christmas music isn’t about preparing for a man in a big, red suit or the presents I’ll get December 25th– It’s about what the holiday season was for me growing up, and the season of hope and magic I still think it can be.
Carols take me back to afternoons falling asleep wrapped up next to the Christmas tree, the smell of pine filling the room, its twinkling lights literally brightening the rainy day. They remind me of nights my mom and I danced in dustings of snow, praying it would will the Gods for a snow day; of Christmas Eve sleepovers with my sister, staying up late giggling; and family dinners around the table.
I know there are people reading this, rolling their eyes even thinking about the holidays. I can’t say I blame them. At this time of year the materialism of “Christmas” explodes around you and stores start putting up decorations before you’ve even eaten your first piece of Halloween candy. As if our lives aren’t hectic enough, we’re expected to cram shopping, decorating, hosting and other social events into already shorter days.
But continuing to get excited about music and lights, Christmas oranges, even red Starbucks cups, is my little way of brightening this gloomy Portland weather. It’s my way of going back to the days when I had time to just relax…
After all, whether you’re excited or not, the holidays are rapidly approaching. Those of us working to reach fitness goals or trying to lose weight might feel extra frustration, as the lack of free time to workout is complicated by the plethora of baked goodies and rich foods this season brings. Yes, regular workouts are incredibly important for many reasons, but in all honesty, it can be incredibly hard to find a few hours, even 30 minutes to yourself this time of year! So how do you fit it all in?
The answer is that maybe you don’t have to.
Building rest days into your workout plan not only help balance the million things on your to-do list, but studies show it actually helps you reach your fitness goals.
I recently came across an article on two different studies that addressed the relationship between stress and exercise. (1) One study literally put the “rat race” to the test, locking two rats inside a running wheel. The first rat was able to exercise whenever it wanted, while the other was forced to run whenever its counterpart did. Exercise usually decreases stress and improves brain function, however the second rat actually lost brain cells. “It was doing something that should have been good for its brain, but it lacked one crucial factor: control. It could not determine its own ‘workout’ schedule, so it didn’t perceive it as exercise.” Instead, it experienced the workout as additional, negative stress.
When our bodies remain in this constant state of stress, hormone production is affected and our natural defense mechanisms weaken. The overloaded brain shuts down critical areas of the brain that affect learning, memory, and rational thought. It’s why we end up eating junk food when we’re not hungry, or sit and eat during our free time instead of doing something more enjoyable- we engage in futile, counter-productive behavior because our coping mechanisms are no longer working.
We eventually get thrown into a rut and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut; like not working out because we’re too stressed or overwhelmed, only to stress about having not worked out. Sound familiar?
It’s a large part of why people so often start strong with a new workout or eating routine, but quickly lose motivation. Rather than becoming something we enjoy, giving us a natural high and decreasing stress, working out becomes just one more chore we have to do.
I often see this need, even desperation in some clients, to negate calories for the day, keep intensity high, or not miss days in the gym. However, studies show that 2-3 rest days a week actually help improve physical results and allow the muscles to repair, rebuild, and strengthen. In fact, continuous training can actually weaken the results of even the strongest athletes, and exercisers who take days off are often more successful in their weight loss efforts.
Begin giving yourself the permission one to three days each week to rest. Acknowledge and be proud the work you do and take these days, without a workout, as time to heal and regenerate.
I can’t tell you how to spend that free time any more than I can force you into the holiday spirit, but I encourage you over the next few weeks to try slowing down, even if just for a bit. A favorite relaxation technique I often use is known as “grounding:”
Find a few minutes to lie down or sit back in a chair, even right before going to sleep. Focus on slowing down your breath, taking deep inhales as you let your arms and legs fall to the side naturally. When you are ready, begin tensing and releasing one muscle group at a time, working your way up the whole body. Beginning with the toes and feet for example, take a big inhale in through the nose and squeeze all of the muscles in your feet. Hold this for a moment, noticing how that tension feels, and as you exhale out through the mouth, let all of that tension get pushed away. Continue to do this with each part of your body, feeling yourself relax more and more with each breath, and letting yourself sink towards the bed or ground. Try to clear your mind of anything else around you and focus on how your body feels, parts of the body that might be holding onto extra tension, how your stomach rises and falls… continuing to do this until you feel the last bit of tension go.
Maybe you don’t fit a workout in one day, or maybe you eat too much of your mom’s homemade pumpkin bread- maybe you accidently turn on some Amy Grant Christmas. Whatever you decide to do, allow yourself the opportunity to breathe, smile, and soak up the simple joys that surround you.
“Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.”