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Are the holidays your body’s enemy?
It’s a question I’ve been asked for years—over and over again—by thousands of men and women pursuing every fitness goal imaginable. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to get in shape, dialing it in for better conditioning, or just trying to prevent a dietary collapse before the end of the year.
The holidays are a universal challenge because they seem to promote “unhealthy” behaviors. Leaving you wondering if you should enjoy the holidays (and all the food), or if you need to adapt as a means to reaching your goals.
To answer your question, I embarked on a two-year experiment to determine if a holiday indulgence is good or bad for your body. This wasn’t just about looking good; it was a test to determine how to create better life balance, more happiness, and improved fitness. Let my experience guide you to a better Thanksgiving, less stress, and more certainty on how to handle any celebration.
The Anti-Thanksgiving: Does it Work
I remember the first time I only ate healthy foods during Thanksgiving. It occurred a few years ago when I was doing a story for a big magazine. The goal was simple: fight my way to single-digit body fat. There was just one little catch: On my three-month journey to six-pack glory, Thanksgiving was just three weeks before my final weigh in and shoot.
I made the decision to eat only healthy foods. I had salad and green beans, turkey, a small serving of sweet potatoes, and that was it.
No stuffing. No cranberries or gravy. And worst of all (for me at least), no pie.
I survived Thanksgiving and went on to work my way down to 8 percent body fat (after starting at 12 percent). I came in lean, with my six-packing popping, and my muscles looking good (albeit not completely full). But I had one massive regret. I ruined Thanksgiving for myself. And in retrospect, I didn’t fully grasp the essence and foundation of living a healthy life.
You see, being healthy is not about only eating baked chicken, spinach, and carrying around a gallon water jug. Fitness is not bodybuilding, or yoga, or CrossFit. These are passions.
Real fitness and real health is finding an activity you love, and then doing it repeatedly. It’s consistency and passion. Focus and commitment. But most importantly, it’s enjoyment and sustainability.
A healthy life is one that doesn’t restrict or prevent you from being a part of the aspects of life that you enjoy most. Now, some of those behaviors might need moderation. Whether it’s drinking, cursing, or eating, you need control and you’ll need to make sacrifices. But there is a time and a place for everything. And I’m a firm believer that any plan that is too strict for you to “cheat” a little on Thanksgiving—or any holiday, is probably the wrong program. (Of course, if you have a health condition this is a different story.)
Make time for the holidays and make celebrating those days a priority, in the same way that you prioritize your body and fitness.
One of the main reasons we train and work so hard is that we can be there to take care of others. Thanksgiving is a chance to be with all the people that support you in your attempts to become a better man or woman. A time for you to be thankful for what you have in life—your friends, your family, and your body. It’s also an opportunity to reward yourself for your hard work, and a reminder that balance is the true measure of health.
The Six-Pack Experiment: Redemption and Reward
Did you know that during his contest days, Arnold used to eat entire pies just a few weeks prior to hitting the stage? On one hand, it’s easy to chalk that up to superior genetics or his incredible physique. But there was only one way to find out if anyone can indulge and still be healthy.
A year after my regrettable Thanksgiving mistake, I repeated my six-pack experiment. Just as before, I started at 12 percent body fat and gave myself 3 months to get into peak shape.
Only this time I had dessert…once every week. And I enjoyed Thanksgiving the way it was meant to be experienced. I ate pie and all the sweet potatoes I wanted, and I celebrated the holiday. The result? By December I came in at lower body fat (6.7%) than before, and had 10 pounds additional muscle.
Your body wants and needs the occasional indulgence. Research shows that “cheat meals” can help your body in many ways. From providing a mental break, to giving you a hormonal boost during even the most difficult diets—it’s a reminder that all things in life should be enjoyed. And that includes good food and good company.
Trust me, no one will ever accuse me of having superior genetics. But if I could find a way to enjoy the holidays without a negative impact on my health, then you can too.
Finding Your Balance
Go big or go home.
It’s a mantra that’s programmed into the very essence of some of the most successful people in the world. The mentality is a guiding thought that can help motivate you to reach higher, push farther, and achieve more than what’s possible.
But it’s also a dangerous drug that can push you towards extremes. Working too hard. Partying too often. Or eating too much.
Your body is not a seesaw. You can’t ride endless peaks and valleys and expect to come out on top. This is the flaw that victimizes so many people. They work hard in the gym, and then they rationalize that they can eat whatever they want.
As the mirror has proven for millions of people, it doesn’t work that way.
So don’t view the holidays as a valley. Instead, view it as part of the peak—as long as you can make it last for just one day.
People generally fall into two categories with Thanksgiving:
They are afraid to eat what they want, and therefore never enjoy the holiday. They eat some healthy options (like turkey), avoid what they really want (like pie), and spend so much time worrying about their appearance that they lose all perspective.
- When Thanksgiving hits, a hurricane of hunger leads you to eat everything offered—and continue that behavior until the next year arrives. The one day of indulgence turns into one week, then into 3 weeks in preparation for Christmas, and inevitably rolls over into New Years.
The best way to approach the holidays is a hybrid of the two options. Do yourself a favor and enjoy. Eat food, enjoy in the social aspect of turkey, stuffing, and pie. Don’t let your fitness goals become a burden for your life. No matter what your level of dedication, that’s not a sacrifice you want to make. So enjoy the holiday, the company, and the food.
But then cut yourself off at the end of the day. Handle a holiday like a cheat day. And one of the best rules of cheat day is to enjoy your indulgences, and when the day is over toss out all the crap. Don’t give yourself an excuse or an opportunity to slip up and continue the bad pattern.
And for even better results, let your holiday (or Thanksgiving) meal be a reward. I’m a big believer in training hard the day of—or the day before—a big meal and then turning the feast into part of my post-workout recovery. With that in mind, here’s a workout that will allow you to strike the perfect holiday-fitness balance.
This is a high-intensity “depletion” workout. The goal is to delete your glycogen, which is a primary energy source in your body. When it’s topped off, eating extra calories (and carbs) can play a role in making you gain weight. When it’s depleted, the food you eat will go to refueling your body, restoring your energy, and helping you build muscle and repair after a tough workout. This session is specifically designed to deplete your body, so that you can fuel up extra big on all your favorite T-Day foods.
How to do it: Perform each exercise for 15 to 20 reps. If you can’t perform the reps consecutively, do as many as you can, rest, and then move on to the next exercise. Your goal is to try and do as much work as possible in the given time. After each exercise rest for 20 seconds, and then move to the next exercise. Once you have completed all 10 exercises, rest for 2 minutes and then repeat 3 more rounds. You can select either the weighted or bodyweight version—just in case your gym is closed.
Bodyweight squats (hold each for 4 seconds at the bottom of the rep)
Pullups (lower your body for 4 seconds)
Plank (hold for 60 seconds)
Alternating jump lunges (or alternating lunges)
Pushups (hold the bottom for 4 seconds)
Bulgarian split squats (hold the bottom for 4 seconds)
Hand walkouts (also known as an inchworm)
Dumbbell floor press
Triceps Overhead rope extension
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Bornstein is an award-winning fitness and nutrition writer and editor. Named “one of the most influential people in health”, he uses his background as a university researcher to combine the latest in science with the techniques practiced in the trenches to provide information that anyone can use to improve their health. Bornstein was previously the fitness editor at Men’s Health magazine, the author of four fitness books—including the upcoming Men’s Health Big Book of Abs, and has appeared on Good Morning America, The Early Show, and E! News.