How to stay motivated during the holidays

Our guest expert this week is Dr. Jim Taylor.

Jim has been a consultant to the United States and Japanese Ski Teams, the United States Tennis Association, and USA Triathlon, has been an invited speaker by the Olympic committees of the U.S., Spain, France, and Poland. He has worked with professional and Olympic athletes in tennis, skiing, triathlon, football, baseball, cycling, golf...

A former U.S. top-20 ranked alpine ski racer who competed internationally, Jim is a certified tennis teaching professional, a 2nd degree black belt and certified instructor in karate, a marathon runner, and an Ironman triathlete.

It’s late November and you’re heading into the holiday season with feelings of dread rather than cheer. You may have been pretty good about eating healthily and working out regularly, but you know that this time of the year is different. You’ll be busy with holiday parties which means eating more. To make matters worse, it’ll be cold and dark when you usually work out, so it’s much harder to get out and exercise. You’re afraid that your efforts to stay fit all year will go for naught. When January 1 comes, you’ll feel like a total blob and be wracked with guilt for allowing yourself to once again fall into the “holiday health blues.” You also know that you’ll be making lame New Year’s resolutions and starting from scratch trying regain your healthy lifestyle.

But don’t despair! This gloomy scenario doesn’t have to happen this year—or ever again. There are steps you can take to avoid this yearly winter trap and enter the new year having enjoyed the holiday season and still remain in fine shape.

Choose Fun Fitness

It’s easy to stay fit during most of the year; it’s sunny, warm, and with long days. You can be outside and enjoy the mountains, beaches, or other natural beauty. Life changes during the winter though. It’s dark when you get up in the morning and it’s dark when you get home at the end of the day. It’s also cold which means you either have to bundle up for outdoor exercise or schlep to the gym from an indoor workout. To make matters worse, the people who you usually work out with may also fall into the winter blahs, so you have no extra incentive to get out there.

Perhaps the biggest problem with winter exercise is that it can be a chore rather than a joy. Without the inherent motivators present to get you to exercise, you have to create your own. The best motivator is to find activities that you enjoy. Weightlifting in a crowded gym or running on slushy sidewalks probably doesn’t bring you joy, so find something that does. Take up cross-country skiing, join an indoor volleyball league, learn to play tennis, squash, or racquetball, take dance lessons or aerobics classes, or join a yoga class. There are many activities that aren’t considered typical exercise, but that offer great cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility benefits and, more importantly, they’re fun!

Find a Training Buddy

It’s 6 am, dark, and cold outside. Your alarm just went off. The night before, you told yourself that you were going to wake up early and run, but your cozy bed in your warm house won’t allow you to get up. So you hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. Or you get home from work or school at the end of the day and you’re tired and hungry. You just can’t get yourself to change and go for a workout.

It’s tough to go it alone, especially when the elements are against you. You need a really good reason to get yourself to exercise and one of the best reasons is other people. Find a training partner to work out with. For many people, the social aspects of exercise are very motivating. Being around other motivated people, having good conversation, and, at the very least, commiserating about how cold and dark it is, can make winter exercise not only tolerable, but often enjoyable.

The commitment you make to a training buddy can also motivate you to get out of bed or off your sofa. When you agree to train with someone, you’re establishing an informal contract that brings with it responsibilities. When you schedule a workout with your training partner, you’re creating an obligation to be there. When you don’t show up for a planned workout, you’re letting your partner down and violating your agreement. You’re no longer just hurting yourself when you don’t exercise, you’re also hurting your training buddy.

Set a Goal

Another great motivator is to have a goal that you want to achieve. You need a darned good reason to work out during the winter and “general health and fitness” is perhaps too nebulous to get you going. But a specific goal may offer you the push that you need. Goals can include gains in strength, weight loss, learning a new sport, improving at an old sport, or preparation for an upcoming competitive event, such as a running race or triathlon. Whatever goals you set, be sure they’re specific and measurable, attainable with effort, and you can chart your progress.

The Hardest Part is Thinking About Exercise

The hardest part about working out is not starting, doing, or finishing the exercise, but rather just thinking about it. Exercise seems more difficult and unpleasant before you begin your workouts. You think about the sweat, fatigue, and pain. But once you begin, it’s rarely that bad. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy being active and vigorous. The really good feelings come at the end. When you finish your work out, you usually feel great; energized and affirmed for the effort you expended.

Schedule Your Workouts

Don’t expect to stay committed to an exercise program if you try to fit it in around the rest of your life. You’ll be too busy, too tired, or too stressed, and you’ll always find an excuse not to work out. Rather than fitting exercise into your life, make it a part of your life by scheduling your workouts. By setting aside time throughout your week to exercise, you ensure that there won’t be time conflicts and you’ll develop the mindset that working out is just another part of your day, like eating and bathing.

In scheduling your winter-exercise program, don’t bite off more than you can chew by creating a workout plan that’s too much for you. A program that requires too much time doing activities that aren’t enjoyable will make it easy for you not to exercise. Be realistic about what you can and won’t do as part of your training program. It’s better to do less consistently, than try to do more sporadically or not at all.

Your exercise program should also be convenient. If your gym is a 30-minute drive from home, you’re probably not going to motivate yourself to go when it’s dark and cold. Make working out easy by doing activities that are readily accessible. For example, schedule your workouts on the way to and from somewhere, so it’s easy to stop by and have a workout. And, no matter what happens, go directly to a workout at the end of the day. If you stop at home, you will probably stay at home.

Commit to Moderation

What makes the holiday period so difficult is that socializing and eating are done in excess and exercise is often jettisoned completely. You can enjoy the holidays and still maintain your fitness and not gain much weight if you make a commitment to moderation in your holiday activities. Moderation means either cutting back on your holiday parties so you aren’t too tired to exercise the next day or leaving at a reasonable hour so you can get a good night’s sleep. It also means demonstrating some restraint when faced with open bars, plates of hors d’oeuvres, buffets, and dessert tables. Don’t fall into the more-is-better mentality when it comes to food and drink. You don’t need to try everything (or, at the very least, try smaller amounts of everything). Moderation allows you to enjoy your holidays, but relieves you of the guilt and regret you feel the morning after having eaten to excess.

Accept Little Failures

One of the biggest deterrents to staying committed to an exercise program is falling off the wagon and not getting right back on. When you decide to sleep in rather than getting up to work out, you feel like such a failure and figure that there’s no point in exercising at all if you keep giving up. But one slip doesn’t make you a failure.

You don’t have to be perfect to stay in good shape, just consistent. Accept that you’ll miss some workouts for any number of reasons and that doesn’t make you weak or a bad person, it just makes you human. When you skip a workout, cut yourself some slack, tell yourself that it’s okay, and recommit to working out tomorrow.

When it comes to your diet, don’t beat yourself up if you do indulge yourself and overeat a bit. It’s not the end of the world. Just be sure to get back on the wagon at your next party and show some restraint. You will always feel better after the fact having done a little less than a little more.

Exercise Before and After You Indulge

Perhaps the best strategy for the holidays is to commit to exercise before and after you indulge. By exercising before holiday events, you’ll have earned the right to enjoy yourself. You can eat guilt-free because you’ve already burned off the calories. Knowing that you’ll exercise the next day ensures that you’ll work off your indulgences of the previous evening and relieves you of any guilt you may feel. By working out before and after your holiday events you balance the scales and the whole thing is a wash.

Live a Little

Finally, live a little. The holidays are meant to be enjoyed. As the holiday season approaches, make peace with eating a bit more and exercising a bit less than usual. If you remain committed to consistent exercise and food in moderation, you won’t lose much fitness or gain much weight. Not only will the holidays not hurt you physically or reek emotional havoc on you, but they will actually bring you cheer.

Happy Holidays!

Dr. Jim Taylor

"Rather than fitting exercise into your life, make it a part of your life by scheduling your workouts".

Dr Jim Taylor

Sign up here to be first to receive the latest news and views on mental toughness for runners

You might also enjoy our twitter newsfeed at