Hailey Middlebrook: How to holiday and not become Santa

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 - 5:40pm

It happens around mid-November: holiday food comes out. Recipes for sweet potato casseroles slide innocently into our Facebook feeds; tantalizing pies pop up in the corners of Trader Joe’s. Fresh greens and butternut squash are suddenly overwhelmed by french-fried onions and candied yams, their packages covered in recipes for butter-laden dishes.

Then there’s the snow, justifying us staying in, swaddled in blankets and fuzzy socks. Friendsgiving dinners are planned, but bike rides are canceled due to ice and dropping temps. We settle into Thanksgiving mode, finals mode, sweater-party mode.

And as much as we indulge in the glorious food and traditions of the season, each serving of pumpkin pie often comes with a dollop of guilt.

For many people, Thanksgiving — and the holiday season in general — is an all-or-nothing ordeal when it comes to healthy choices. On one hand, there’s the guy with a devil-may-care attitude toward the festivities, wolfing down third servings in sweatpants and abandoning the gym until New Year’s Resolution time rolls around. Then there’s the joyless warrior who’s sticking to her diet no matter what, replacing every side dish with its healthy substitute and manically bragging about how many calories she saved over “Thinsgiving.”

And there’s the half million people, myself included, who ran a “Turkey Trot” on Thanksgiving Day, racing distances of 5k to marathon to offset the big meal to come. We all want to have our cake and eat it too, without tipping the scale like Santa or glaring at frosting like the Grinch. So instead of sacrificing snickerdoodles, we may kill ourselves in the gym, crushing the guilt from holiday binges to a minimum.

But in the middle of a two-hour “Turkey Burn” spin class, when you’re cursing the wine and cheese from Aunt Kathy’s house, you may ask yourself: Is this good for me? Is exercise healthy if it’s only in response to guilty binges?

The problem is, if we only exercise because we feel obligated to — so we’ll really deserve that slice of pecan pie — fitness develops a negative connotation. To counter this attitude, Women's Health has recently promoted “Guilt Free Fitness,” encouraging working out because it makes us stronger, not because we feel that we need to earn the bird. “Cycling is about conquering a steep climb so you can experience the high of flying downhill — not working off a turkey dinner. Let’s change the conversation,” the magazine urges.

In theory, their mantra rings true. Exercise is so much more than a means to fitting in a party dress. We shouldn’t run because we’re ashamed of our bodies; we should run because we love our bodies and want to nourish them.

But “Guilt Free Fitness” is harder in practice. No matter if we live healthy lifestyles or struggle to stay on diets, during the holidays, we’ve probably all had the same thought: Man, I really need to workout. We’re not necessarily punishing ourselves, at least not in an unhealthy way. I think about it like this: If I have the choice of grinding out two more miles or beating myself up for overeating later, I’ll choose to run — and I’m sure others (ahem, Turkey Trotters) agree.

But are we guilty of guilty fitness? I asked alum Brittany Ryann Thorpe, a 2014 School of Kinesiology graduate who’s pursuing her M.S. degree in Clinical Physiology and Metabolism at Virginia Tech, for her opinion on how to stay healthy over the holidays.

“I enjoy doing extra work before eating the rich food,” said Thorpe, who was a member of the University Rowing and Cross Country teams. “Because then I don’t feel as guilty when I do stuff my face with the holiday treats. I prefer to hate my workout a little that day more than hate how I feel about myself after consuming that food and not working out.”

As a past personal trainer at Ann Arbor’s Applied Fitness Solutions, Thorpe is familiar with the challenge of staving off weight gain without sacrificing the holiday season.

The holidays can be a defeating time for many people in terms of maintaining a diet and keeping up with their workout routines,” she said. “It’s best to encourage people to maintain good habits over the holidays, but still find enjoyment in the festive season. After all, if you don’t eat that slice of pie you really want, if later in the season you become defeated with your diet, you may find yourself eating the whole pie instead!”

Thorpe continued, “Accept that you might — and most likely will — gain a bit more weight on the holidays, but don’t feel defeated in your efforts to eat better and work out.”

Like all things in the holidays, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that your grandma might ask about your love life, your runs may be in sub-zero temps and you’ll probably gain a few pounds from the pound cakes. The good news? You’re surrounded by good food, friends and family. Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you have to hibernate. Being active can simply mean taking your little sister ice skating, hiking out to get that perfect tree, or going shopping with your mom.

And if you want more? Register for the Jingle Bell Run. Have the slice of pie. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, whether they be active or indulgent, I say the more the merrier. Stay moving and save splurges for special occasions, then leave the dollop of guilt at home.