Get Fit Without the Gym

Last Editorial Review: 4/7/2005

Learn how to burn off holiday calories without going to the gym

By Gina Shaw
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

The winter holidays are approaching, families are gathering, feasts are being cooked -- and pounds are packing on. In the middle of all this good cheer, which generally requires you to (not always cheerily) race from mall to airport to grocery store to kitchen in a frenzy of preparation, how can anyone find time to exercise away the remnants of the turkey (135 calories for two slices of white meat), pumpkin pie (320 calories a slice) and mashed potatoes (225 calories a cup)?

If you can't squeeze in a trip to the gym between Aunt Lulu's arrival and the Cub Scout visit to the tree farm, don't despair. You can still make the calorie-burning most of many traditional holiday activities, experts say.

Let's start with holiday shopping. Brisk walking around the mall -- no wandering, here -- can burn between 3.5 and 7 calories per minute depending on factors such as your age, metabolism, and weight, says exercise physiologist Alex Jordan, MS, who runs the exercise laboratory at the Cooper Aerobics Institute in Dallas. So if you spend two hours scouring the stores for the perfect sweater, you'll have burned anywhere from 500 to 800 calories. Of course, sometimes it's hard to walk briskly when the mall seems packed with not only the entire population of your own city but a dozen or so surrounding counties, but consider it a bonus: Now you have a slalom course.

You can add to the exercise bonanza of your shopping trip, and reduce some of your stress, by forgoing the traditional holiday circling of the close-in parking spaces. Try parking in the farthest row back in the most distant level of the parking garage, and add five minutes of walking time (and perhaps a few flights of stairs) to your afternoon.

If you're going over the river and through the international airport to Grandma's house, here's another opportunity for a little "found exercise" during the holiday rush. "Don't take the moveable walkways or trains from concourse to concourse. Walk the whole way," says Suzanne Henson, MS, RD, coordinator of the EatRight weight management program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. A 10-minute walk from security to Gate Z499, speedily towing your Rollaboard, will burn about 50 calories.

And consider those unavoidable holiday delays an exercise bonus. "Don't just sit during your layover: Get up and move! I always try to do that when I fly, and in addition to burning calories, I'm not nearly as fatigued when I get home as if I were just sitting around the gate for hours," Henson says. Keep walking through an hour's delay and you've burned another 250 calories or so!

Holiday decorating and housecleaning can also help compensate for some holiday dinner sins. A sweaty hour of climbing up and down ladders and hoisting strings of lights and garlands of green fits in the moderate activity category -- so there's another 250 calories. Now, if you're willing to head out and chop your own tree down at the local tree farm, that counts as "vigorous exercise," burning 7 calories or more per minute, Jordan says. So that half hour of hacking away at the Douglas fir and dragging it to your car burns at least 210 calories. If you can't chop the tree down yourself, at least amp up your walking during the tree search by making it a challenge: stride around the lot with the kids, scouring it for the perfect tree.

"Half an hour of hauling the furniture around to clean the corners or make room for the tree nets you about 210 calories burned."

Most housecleaning, Jordan says, fits the "light activity" category and only burns a few calories an hour. But it adds up, and if you're moving furniture to get at those often-neglected areas that only get cleaned when family comes to visit, you're exercising more vigorously. Half an hour of hauling the furniture around to clean the corners or make room for the tree nets you about 210 calories burned.

Outdoor chores around the holidays can really make a dent in your calorie overload. Shoveling the sidewalk burns about 350 calories in just a half hour, while an hour of raking leaves takes off 200 calories. "Don't get the kid next door to do it or use the snow blower or leaf blower," says Jordan. "Pace yourself --don't let a foot of snow stack up on you. Shovel it once you've got three inches on the ground, and go out again after another three inches."

Once your own house sparkles with holiday cheer, many people like to take the kids out to ooh and aah over the lights and decorations around town. Here's a novel idea: walk. "Bundle the kids up and walk around the neighborhood to see the decorations," says Henson. "So often we're in the car, confined, driving around to look at Christmas lights. It's great to get out and move, and you'll get a better view."

Multitasking? Bah, Humbug!

In all your holiday activities, says Henson, try to be "as inefficient as possible." While that may sound like heresy in the age of multitasking, it'll help you to get a little more exercise out of your everyday activities. "When you're carrying in a carload of holiday groceries, incorporate a little more activity by carrying in one or two bags at a time instead of trying to drag them in all at once," Henson says. (Your back will thank you, too!)

"Try to incorporate what we call 'step-losing activities' throughout the day," she explains. That might mean carrying one box of lights or ornaments up from the basement at a time. When you're on the phone to the Butterball Turkey Hotline or calling mom for her yam recipe, use the cordless and walk around the house. Or just hide the remote control and make yourself walk back and forth to change the channels on the television. Every little bit counts!

Originally published Nov. 10, 2003.
Medically updated Oct. 18, 2004.

SOURCES: Alex Jordan, MS, exercise physiologist, The Cooper Aerobic Institute, Dallas. Suzanne Henson, MS, RD, coordinator, EatRight weight management program, University of Alabama, Birmingham.

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