Fitting in Family Fitness at the Holidays

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Milk-gallon dead lifts, shared inchworms, synchronized walking and a little misdirection could be the keys to staying in shape and in harmony with loved ones during the holiday weeks ahead, experts say.

While people who regularly exercise often worry about having too little time, willpower or familial good will available for workouts when they visit or host family and friends for the holidays, the researchers and athletes I spoke with felt that the greater challenge — and opportunity — lies in finding ways to rope in the gathered hordes, who might otherwise stay inactive.

Many cities now feature organized bike rides tied to Thanksgiving, as an alternative to the ubiquitous Turkey Trot running races. Some of these rides are fund-raisers or competitive events, but others involve tooling around the city seeing sights, building appetites or even purchasing turkeys for delivery to a food bank. Bike shops should have information about local holiday rides and bike rentals, if needed.

You could also use the holidays to reassess and perhaps broaden your notions of exercise, said Brad Stulberg, a performance coach and co-author of the books “Peak Performance” and “The Passion Paradox.”

“Since we had our son, I’ve backed off of marathon training and started hiking with Theo in a backpack,” allowing father and son to chatter, share and bond, he said. Lugging 25 pounds of offspring on one’s back for an hour or so “is as much of an aerobic workout as anyone needs,” he said.

Following is some advice from exercise experts on how to stay active and have fun with your family at the holidays.

Game On

One way to keep everyone active is to “gamify” your time with family and friends, said Dr. Pamela Peeke, a triathlete, adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and spokeswoman on exercise and nutrition for the American College of Sports Medicine.

“I hate the ‘E’ word: exercise,” she said. “Instead, I tell people, turn everyday activities into games and playing. Get everyone involved. Don’t say, ‘Hey, everybody, let’s exercise,’ Say, ‘Hey, who wants to play tag?’”

Adding a light layer of competition may motivate people who otherwise would be resistant, she said. “See who can rake a pile of leaves the fastest or how many snow angels people can make in one minute or how much snow they can shovel in 30 seconds. This approach is what I call stealth high-intensity-interval family fun. People get so caught up in the game, they don’t realize they are working out.”

“Kids love the ‘sit-stand-high-five’ routine,” Dr. Peeke said. Position two chairs to face each other. Sit. Stand. High five. Repeat. “For them, that’s not exercise. It’s playing. But that kind of motion” — rising rapidly and sinking back into a chair, repeatedly — “is a workout.”

Or inchworm with the youngsters or any willing adults, inebriated or otherwise, she said. This classic calisthenic involves standing with your feet about hip-width apart, hinging forward at the hips, placing your hands on the ground, palms flat, and walking your hands forward until your chest is parallel to the ground. Then walk your hands back toward your feet, stand, and dare any pint-size relatives to try — just try! — to inchworm faster than you.

Jump Around

Consider also supplying the household with jump ropes, said Dr. Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and exercise physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a committed athlete. Jump ropes, by themselves, provide all the equipment needed for a full workout and silly fun, he said.

If you’re visiting relatives, you can pack a few to take along. Then introduce the children to double Dutch and other trick jumping and remind their elders of how jolly it once was to bounce, even for a moment or two.

Get Snacking

These kinds of brief activity spurts provide nutritious “exercise snacks,” said Dr. Kathryn Schmitz, a professor of public health at Penn State University and the immediate past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. “If you can’t manage to work out for 30 minutes straight during the holidays or any other time,” she said, “be active for five minutes or three minutes multiple times during the day.”

For her part, she completes several upper- and lower-body “exercise snacks” every day while traveling. “I try to do a few push-ups and maybe some dead lifts,” she said. “You can use a gallon of milk” as a weight during the dead lifts, Dr. Schmitz suggested. Dead lifts, which strengthen the backside muscles, involve setting the milk (or dumbbell or other weight) on the floor in front of you. Then stand upright, bend over from your waist, knees slightly bent, spine straight, head up, buttocks out, eyes focused ahead (not down) and arms straight. Grasp the gallon and, keeping it close to your body, slowly straighten, then lower it, and repeat.

And invite full-family participation. “Almost everyone can do something, even if it is just a push-up against the wall, if someone shows them how and keeps saying, ‘Wow, good job, Grandma,’” she said.

Importantly, you will not miss out on most health or fitness benefits by lowering your exercise targets to a few minutes per day while hanging out with the family, said Dr. Robert Sallis, a co-director of the sports medicine program at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana, Calif., and the chairman of the Exercise Is Medicine initiative at the American College of Sports Medicine. “The science is pretty clear that doing anything — even if it is just taking the stairs or walking around the mall with your cousins — counts,” he said. “It is all physical activity and adds up and goes toward improving health.”

Start Early

If you crave solo exercise, “go early,” said Katie Arnold, an ultrarunner and the author of the 2019 memoir “Running Home.”

“Most normal people like to linger in the morning over coffee,” she pointed out, so energetic early risers can slip out for a long walk or bike ride, and, with luck, your relatives “won’t even notice you’ve been gone.”

You also can visit a local gym in the early hours. “Most Y.M.C.A.s open early and offer day passes,” Mr. Stulberg said.

You can find other local gym facilities that allow visitors to buy day or weekly passes with the TrainAway app.

Peace Movement

Exercise may also help lessen the inevitable strains of holiday togetherness, Dr. Sallis said. “There is nothing like exercise for reducing anxiety and stress,” he said. “It’s the best medicine we know of. Even if it’s just a little, even it’s just a walk around the block, it could make a huge difference in how well people cope with the holidays.”

It might even ultimately change hearts and minds, soften otherwise intractable interpersonal differences and save the holidays from dreary bickering, said Christine Webb, a college fellow in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, who studies conflict resolution in humans and primates. In a seminal 2017 paper, she and her co-authors concluded that people who walk together often start to synchronize their strides and, eventually to some extent, their thoughts. So, when Uncle Bill and your collegiate daughter threaten to argue yet again, suggest a long group walk.

“It’s worth it,” Dr. Webb said. “The synchrony of striding often emerges naturally when walking, and such implicit agreement, about how fast to walk, when to turn, when to stop, can facilitate more explicit agreements that in turn reconcile differences.”

“I’ve always found it fascinating that photographs of Camp David, a site renowned for successful negotiations, often feature world leaders walking the grounds together,” she said, a strategy that, while useful for furthering world peace, might also promote harmony around your holiday dinner table.