How Do I Maintain a Healthy Relationship with Exercise During the Holidays?

It’s easy to make the holidays about things they weren’t ever meant to be about.

Thanksgiving becomes all about Black Friday shopping and Christmas becomes a whole lot of stress over gift-giving—two holidays that were never supposed to be about materialism, consumerism, or worry.

During this time of year, I think it’s tempting to make the holidays about our bodies too, particularly if you’ve suffered from an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors. Wondering if you’ve eaten too much, feeling anxious at big dinners with large amounts of both food and people, and body checking regularly.

I’ve always loved this time of year, but when I think back to the thick of my eating disorder, I can’t remember much about each holiday because so much of my brain-power and thoughts were focused on my attempt to stay small and be “good.”

Everything I ate had ifs, ands, and buts attached to it.

You can have seconds if you run 7 miles tomorrow and don’t eat breakfast next week, but don’t fill your plate too much because then you’ll be bloated and people will judge you.

I feared weight gain and loss of control when it came to my body, which is what began my addiction to exercise. It was excessively exercising on top of intense food restriction that kept me feeling safe.

If I ate something “bad” or I knew I was going to be eating something unhealthy in the near future, all I had to do was sweat and burn enough calories to make up for what I considered a mistake. It was a nasty shame cycle that nobody should ever find themselves in, but too many of us often do.

Like any addiction, it takes time to heal and conscious effort not to relapse, which is why I wrote this post for myself and others who struggle to find a healthy balance with exercise around a time of year when there are lots of treats, parties, and socializing.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay in shape around the holidays, and there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing exercise. It becomes dangerous, however, when exercise becomes so much a priority that we begin putting it in front of other priorities in our life that matter to.

This leads me to my first tip on how to maintain a healthy relationship with exercise this season:

1. Check your intentions

Do I want to move my body because it feels good or am I believing a deeply rooted lie that I’m not good enough and need to maintain a certain image to be accepted?

There have been so many times where I’ve wrestled with my intentions to exercise, to the point where I’ve made it to the entrance of the gym and had to turn around because I knew if I did do a workout, I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons.

It’s hard to battle with these thoughts and keep yourself from doing something you feel you should do, but learning to not act on faulty intentions is both freeing and empowering.

2. Invite people to workout with you

The worst thing to do if you struggle with excessive exercise is to isolate yourself from others in order to get in the most efficient workout possible. Instead, try going to the gym or on a jog with a friend to take your mind off the “calories burned” piece and more on the relationship piece.

3. Set yourself a time limit

Allowing myself no more than 40 min to 1 hour of exercise has prevented me from spending countless hours in the gym that take away from my relationships and rest. Sometimes it is difficult to end a workout when my time is up, but I try to remind myself that whatever things I didn’t get to can be done the next time I’m in the mood to get my sweat on. We all need to learn more about how to push the off button and I’ve found this an effective way to do just that.

4. Let go of the schedule and tap into your intuition

Staying on an exercise schedule isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you’re staying true to that schedule because you fear what will happen if you don’t, there’s a good chance its time for you to reclaim your relationship with exercise.

You can read my post, Reclaiming My Relationship with Exercise and Breaking Free From Body Shame for more of an explanation of how I did this, and how you might do so yourself.

I used to plan out a week in advance, what I would do for a workout each day, forcing my body into movements that didn’t feel good or serve me. Something I’ve found particularly useful is contemplating what would feel good and serve my body.

Most times, it’s not until the day of where I decide this which makes way more sense than planning ahead. Our bodies are always changing and some days we will have more energy than others when light stretching is going to sound better than lifting weights.

5. Eat the cookie

Time and time again it’s been shown that when we restrict, we are more likely to binge. Many people who’ve battled an eating disorder will tell you it wasn’t unusual for them to eat from a specific list of foods while fearing and restricting every other food, not on the list. When they finally did allow themselves those fear foods or “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I cannot stand), it was more difficult for them to stop eating and to find a balance.

There will be many treats around this holiday season, some of which you might be convinced you shouldn’t eat. If there is something pulling at your taste buds and you can’t get it out of our mind…like a cookie, eat the dang cookie! I promise you the stress caused by overthinking eating the cookie is far worse for your health than the actual cookie.

And when you eat the cookie, ENJOY the cookie without having strings attached. Train your mind to stray away from mathematical equations of how you might make up for the treat you’ve eaten and be content with your decision.

6. Affirm yourself

Stop telling yourself that in order to feel good, you have to exercise. During my eating disorder, I believed the lie to I had to go a run to have a good day. On weeks or days when are out of your normal element and have other important things to prioritize that don’t involve exercise, don’t forget to tell yourself a couple things you like about yourself and are grateful for.

7. Don’t let anxiety be a thief

During my quiet time of prayer this morning, God brought this very specific sentence to mind. If we don’t stop it in its tracks anxiety will rob us of special moments and take time away from the things that matter.

I was reminded this morning to when anxiety sparks, pray and consult Jesus for help. Because of my past, exercise is one of those things to cause me anxiety, especially when I start to think about when I will fit going to the gym or working out into my busy schedule.

Spending time with Jesus in these moments is what reminds me there is no shame in experiencing anxiety, and that I’m not as alone as I think I am and don’t have to continue living like I am.

In fact, I’ve got a pretty good Friend on my team.

8. Count it all joy

To end, I want to encourage you to find joy in both the wins and losses of your relationship with exercise. I’m sure this blog post seems silly to some, but to those who are struggling to find a healthy balance with exercise this time of year, it’s hard and often exhausting. I understand and there are many others who understand what you’re going through too.

I pray you find rest for your soul this holiday season and remember to appreciate your body and all it does for you. Life is a process and relationships are hard, but with time I’m confident what once seemed impossible will one day become your reality.

Cheers to recovery, to not take for granted the gift it is to exercise and move our bodies, and to a season meant for giving, worship, family, friends, praise, and love.

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