When we were kids Christmas was all about fun and festivities – waking up early, opening your presents and eating way more sweets than you were allowed on any other day of the year. But as we get older Christmas can become a time of added pressure and anxiety – from worrying about finding the perfect gift; to dashing around the shops at the last minute, making awkward small talk with those relatives who you don’t like, or trying to juggle a million things in the kitchen to get the Christmas dinner served warm and on time.
Amidst all of the chaos around Christmas, exercise can drop off your to-do list. But, staying active can boost your mental health, which helps you to deal with the stresses and have a happy, healthy Christmas.
Exercise and physical activity can help to…
Reduce stress and anxiety
Research shows that taking part in aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, swimming or cycling) could reduce general psychological distress and anxiety, whilst resistance (e.g. weight) training can improve your ability to withstand emotional distress and uncertain situations! If you feel like you never know whether you’re coming or going over Christmas and constantly changing plans gives you a headache, then incorporating more exercise or keeping up with your fitness plan could help you to deal with these feelings of anxiety.
Performing yoga poses and breathing practices has also been linked to lower self-reported stress, cortisol (the stress hormone), and blood pressure levels. This evidence suggests that yoga could help you to manage your stress over the festive period.
Improve your mood
Even a short, low intensity activity, such as walking can lead to big improvements in your mood! Researchers found that participants reported feeling in a more positive mood, for example contented, relaxed and energised, on days that they had been physically active compared to days when they were not.
Boost your brain power
Physical activity is related to better performance on tasks that measure abilities such as inhibition, flexibility, selective attention and problem solving. What does that mean for you at Christmas? Taking part in exercise over the festive period could help you to say no to that second mince pie, be able to change your plans more easily, focus your attention on the task at hand rather than get distracted by the million and one other things going on, and solve problems quicker and easier. Luckily for you, these positive effects have been found for a range of exercise, including jogging, quick high intensity interval (HIIT) sessions and yoga.
Create pleasant social interactions
Researchers found that people who had exercised reported more positive social interactions on the same day and the next day. For example, a pleasant conversation with family and friends. The researchers suggested that taking part in exercise set off a cascade of positive events. In addition, practicing yoga has been found to increase our capacity to connect with others and skills such as assertiveness. These are very important over the festive period when you will be meeting lots of friends and family, who may be feeling the pressures of Christmas.
Did you know that being physically active might also improve your memory for faces! Imagine how helpful it would be if you could recognise those people you met at a party yesterday or that aunt who you hardly ever see!
Research shows that being outdoors in a natural environment (e.g. a grassy park or a beach) is associated with better mental health, sleep quality, energy levels and reduced stress. So why not go for a relaxing walk after lunch on Christmas day, an uplifting cycle on Boxing Day or a quick run in the park on NYE to get energised for the night ahead?
Take away message– There is a large body of evidence which suggests that physical activity of many different kinds (e.g. cardio, weights, HIIT and yoga) can improve mental health and feelings of wellbeing. Staying active can help you to deal with the increased stress of the Christmas period. Pick an activity that you enjoy and that will fit easily into your day.
About the author: Rachel Evans holds an MSc in Health Psychology and is currently in her final year as psychology PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. She is interested in promoting health and wellbeing through her blog Healthy & Psyched as well as freelance articles and public speaking. Connect with Rachel on instagram, facebook and twitter.