Merry and Fit

Merry and Fit

Support groups help members maintain fitness during season of indulgence.

Just after 7:30 on a recent Sunday morning, the steady beat of Cold Play’s "Viva la Vida" pulsed through the warm, sleepy air. In the back of the room, lit only by a lavender florescent strobe, were four women perched on stationary exercise bikes. At the command of the instructor, they stood up on the pedals, leaned in to the space in front of them and started to climb a virtual hill.

"If these classes and our workouts weren't fun it’d be hard to get motivated, especially this early in the morning," said Jennifer Henry, one of the women.

The women, all friends, are taking an early morning spin class in an effort to achieve a common goal: to stay in shape and fend off weight gain during the holidays. They’ve formed what they refer to as a holiday fitness team. During the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the average American will pack on at least an extra pound that they won’t shed, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

So seeking out like-minded people and forming a support group with the goal of staying motivated, disciplined and accountable when it comes to health and fitness is an effective weapon in the war on holiday bulge. The group concept is a fitness trend that becomes more useful during the season of indulgence, say experts.

“Working out in groups offers camaraderie and accountability.”

— Paul Raker, YMCA Alexandria

“Working out in groups offers camaraderie and accountability,” said Paul Raker, YMCA Alexandria, which offered a "Find Your 150" program aimed at encouraging healthy eating and at least 150 minutes of cardio exercise each week. “What you’ll find is that people are more likely to show up [for exercise] when they have a friend or small community as opposed to the person who tries to do it on their own.”

Henry says her group has created a schedule that, in addition to their Sunday morning spin class, will include a once-weekly power walk at 8 o’clock in the evening, a weekly standing appointment with a trainer and an early morning bike ride. While they say that it is unlikely that each woman will make all of the sessions during the entire holiday season, they hope that having a road map will keep them on track. "If we didn't have any sort of plan, our group would totally fall by the wayside," she said. "We're making it as convenient for ourselves as possible to make sure we stick with it."

Before developing a schedule, there needs to be an acceptance by group members that the season will likely have an impact on one’s diet and ability to exercise, says Bethesda, Md.-based Kate Heller, a certified personal trainer and CrossFit trainer.

"Even if you find yourself missing a Zumba class or with less time to spend at the gym, it's still important to make exercise a priority," she said. "If you are over scheduled and can't get in a full workout, set aside time to at least do something to break a sweat and get your heart rate up."

Heller suggests maintaining a schedule by setting a calendar or smartphone reminder as you would for a doctor's appointment. Planning early morning workouts, like those of Henry’s group, can head off scheduling conflicts.

"No one will have an office holiday party or meeting scheduled for 5 a.m.," said Lauren Blumenthal, an Arlington-based wellness coach. "Even a short cardio routine that gets your heart rate up and boosts your metabolism can help you feel healthier during the rest of the day."

Meeting a group of friends to plow though a Crossfit workout DVD or having pool of buddies to source when looking for healthful recipes that will hold up against calorie-laden holiday fare is another benefit of group fitness. “We found that when we offered nutrition seminars and then had a potluck dinner where all of the group members prepared and brought a healthy dish, it was a great way to benefit from shared knowledge,” said Raker.

When an evening holiday party is on the calendar and the temptation of heavy chocolate Yule logs and rum-spiked eggnog lurk in the subconscious, meal skipping to conserve calories should not be part of the health plan, says Sarah Leonard, an Oakton-based dietitian.

“You’ll be ravenous by the evening and ready to eat everything in sight,” she said. "If you know you’ll be in a situation where you’re tempted to eat rich and unhealthy food, eat small, vitamin-packed bites throughout the day. Try half of an avocado with a tomato or celery with a teaspoon of peanut butter. These are vitamin-packed and have good fat, so they’re filling.”

The group should acknowledge that the holiday season will be filled with merriment and temptations to indulge, and it's OK to yield to those desires with caution, says Blumenthal. "The goal of a fitness group shouldn't be to lose 10 pounds before the New Year. That's too restrictive and unrealistic and could backfire," she said. "Focus on not gaining any weight and on maintaining any fitness achievements you've acquired this year, like increased endurance.”