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Natural Awakenings National

Holiday Zen: Stress-Free Fitness and Self-Care

Nov 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Maya Whitman
Person sitting on rug on floor in front of Christmas tree meditating with holiday lights and decorations around

Foto Helin/

Despite our best efforts, holiday time can frazzle our nerves and snag us in an unhealthy loop of overindulgence. To combat holiday pressure, the Mayo Clinic suggests maintaining a regular exercise program and investing in me-time activities like meditation and deep breathing.

Movement and simple self-care, even for a few minutes, can lower cortisol levels that often contribute to excessive food cravings. Walking, going for a run, lifting weights, or getting into the pool or onto the yoga mat can help us enjoy the season with less angst.

Cancelling Guilt, Staying Healthy

With simple strategies, enjoying the office party dessert table doesn’t have to get us off track. “One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself when reaching for a cookie is to be in full approval of eating it. Let your experience of eating it be clean, present and so free of resistance that you can really experience it,” says Maria Miller, a spiritual life coach in Oceanside, California.

Stephanie Mansour, host of the weekly national PBS health and fitness show Step It Up with Steph, also opts for a no-stress approach, especially when it comes to working out. “When cortisol levels are through the roof, we crave fattening, salty or sweet foods. Studies have shown that people have a more positive body image just after five minutes of exercise,” says the Chicago-based wellness coach. “This mindset is huge when it comes to eating healthier and taming holiday cravings.”

Bolstering neurotransmitters through good nutrition can take the edge off the to-do list or a gloomy winter day. “When we fuel our bodies with a variety of whole foods, we are also supporting healthy brain function, which has a direct impact on our emotions,” says Teigan Draig, a life coach in Spencerville, Ohio. Draig suggests berries, citrus fruits, fresh fish, turkey, walnuts, almonds, avocados and eggs to boost serotonin and dopamine levels, “which improve mood and help to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety on the body.”

Prioritizing Self

Most of us are short on time, but committing to good health doesn’t require hours at the gym. “Many of my clients are looking for fast, simple workouts that they can squeeze in during the holidays,” says Mansour. “Set the timer for five minutes and get down on the floor to do ab exercises. Doing leg lifts, bicycle abs and crunches for five minutes is an excellent way to fire up the core.” She also suggests setting the morning alarm or going to sleep at night five minutes earlier to do some stretches in bed. “If you’re cooking, you can do squats in the kitchen while a smoothie is blending or calf raises while stirring a pot on the stove.”

For Miller, putting on some music and dancing in the living room is a sure way to get a boost. She is also a fan of guilt-free, unplugged intervals of shut-eye: “Five-to-25-minute power naps are a great way to rest and recharge with a very high return on your investment of time.” During the winter months, it can be easy to turn to screens for distraction and as a way to cope with the stress of the season. Miller reminds us to nourish our souls and get out in nature to “notice the way the weather impacts your body, the way it feels to draw in a breath and how you’re part of a constant exchange with life through each breath you take.”

Inhaling Peace

Conscious breathing makes the effects of workouts go further and halts the cascade of stress hormones. “Whatever fitness routine you’re doing is fine, just always breathe through your nose. Mouth breathing triggers cortisol release,” says Ed Harrold, breathwork and performance coach in Draper, Utah, and author of Life with Breath. “When we slow the breath rate, we encourage a relaxation response. We can manage the release of cortisol by inhaling through the nose, slowly from the belly to the collarbone and exhaling slowly through the nose by gently drawing the belly back into the lower spine. This is called diaphragmatic breathing and is our proper breath, even during exercise.”

For nature, winter is a time of repose from which we can take a cue and enjoy the moment. Draig muses, “Mindfulness requires us to be present in the here and now, rather than worrying about the to-do list or stressing over holiday finances.”

Maya Whitman writes about natural health and living a more beautiful life. Connect at [email protected].

Winter Wisdom Tips

From Stephanie Mansour:

• If you know you’re going to be out for holiday cocktails and sweets, commit to eating an additional serving of greens, perhaps by putting extra greens in your lunch salad, eating sautéed spinach before you leave for the party or adding greens to your protein shake in the morning.

• Set up a “self-care corner” in your home and stack it with motivational books, journals, candles and a cozy blanket. Designate this home sanctuary as a place you can go for peace, quiet and enjoyment without electronics.

• My clients have enjoyed using meditation apps that focus on a topic. Insight Timer has meditations that focus on self-care, weight loss and sleep. I like the prayer app Hallow for people who are looking to improve their prayer life or do a meditation while praying.

From Ed Harrold:

• Practice diaphragmatic breathing while walking, then take it into whatever exercise routine you enjoy. If you feel the need to mouth-breathe, slow down and reestablish a steady rhythm of breath.

• Use your breath as a tool to stay in the present moment; don’t place energy on outdated thought-forms. Be aware that you are exactly what the world needs right now, and the gifts you bring to the table are always big enough.

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