Six Festive Fitness Hacks

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Six Festive Fitness Hacks

Words by Mr Jamie Millar

22 December 2016

Some ideas to help you stay in shape during the holiday period.

Let’s not beat about the holly bush: no matter how religiously you visit the gym, you should enjoy Christmas wholeheartedly, without any guilt. You’re not a professional fitness model and, even if you are, take a couple of days off. Nobody wants to pull a cracker with a nutritional grinch who skips the roast potatoes because they’re doing paleo, or asks if the gravy contains gluten. Suck it up and stop being such a calorie Scrooge: Equinox will forgive your sins in the new year.

That said, the Christmas period has a nasty habit of spreading insidiously along with our waistlines. The parties, like the TV adverts, started in mid-November. Taking a well-earned break of a couple of days from your regime over the holiday season isn’t going to completely derail your train to Gainsville – but a full-on vacation of six weeks just might. Suddenly it’s January, the last time you went to the gym was – gulp – last year and you’ve become one of the horde of resolutionaries that the regulars regard with disdain.

To ensure that generosity and twinkling eyes are the only characteristics that you share with old jelly-bellied St Nick, MR PORTER has gift-wrapped six of the most efficacious ways to counteract festive indulgence. At least your hangover on New Year’s Day won’t be over your belt.

Few protocols boast as favourable a bang-for-buck exchange rate as High-Intensity Interval Training, or Hiit, which is why it’s the basic principle that underpins pretty much every studio class. The gist is that you alternate bursts of extreme effort with periods of hyperventilating recovery. Because your skyrocketed metabolism takes time to come back down to earth, you reap benefits at the higher rate. Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University found that a 10-minute Hiit session – 20 seconds on, two minutes off – elicited the same fitness and fat-burning effects as 50 minutes of steady state.

There are infinite variations of Hiit, but you can also be less scientific about it. Simply pick two points in the park – trees, benches, passed-out revellers – then sprint between them and jog back. NB: for Hiit to really work, you have to work upchuckingly hard. Make sure any rich fare is fully digested, then warm up thoroughly first – especially if you’ve been in hibernation for a few days – and down again after. And don’t overdo it. Alternate Hiit with lower-intensity sessions or you’ll roast your nervous system like chestnuts on an open fire. As this time of year always proves, you can have too much of a good thing.

Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, or Epoc, is the gift that keeps on giving. After a workout, your body continues to mainline calories at a higher rate in order to rebalance hormones, repair cells and restock fuel stores – even if you’re just sat working your way through the contents of your stocking. Hiit (see above) is one way to ensure epic Epoc; another is supersets, where you pair two exercises that target different muscle groups and perform them back to back before resting. Ideally, it should be upper-body and lower, AKA Peripheral Heart Action training, or PHA, which gets your blood pumping far more than any bicep curl.

Maximise the Epoc effect by training first thing in the morning instead of later in the day. A study by Appalachian State University showed that early-bird cyclists burned an extra 190 calories over the subsequent 14 hours, on top of the 500 they torched during the workout itself. That’s a lot of leftover roast turkey. As well as pre-heating your internal oven, you’ll also get your exercise in before the day’s main festivities start, and your willpower disappears like the mince pie left out for Santa. Just don’t make the mistake of feeling like you can then eat more. You’ve been a good boy, but not that good.

The gym being closed over Christmas and New Year could actually be a help to your keep-fit resolutions rather than a hindrance. Falling mercury stimulates your brown fat – not the stuff that you have to scrub off the roasting tray (a decent workout in itself), but a miraculous substance in your body that generates heat by burning the less welcome kind of lard for fuel. That means you can enhance the fat-loss potential of any session simply by taking it outside. (Cold-weather training can also fast-track your fitness by forcing your body to use the limited oxygen more efficiently – hence why you gasp.)

If freezing your baubles off doesn’t sound so hot, 30 seconds under an icy shower can be enough to activate your brown fat, particularly if you concentrate on your neck and shoulders, where more of it is stored. (This also reduces stress – helpful if the in-laws are staying.) And according to the National Institute of Health, setting the temperature of your place to a cool 66°F or 18°C burns 7 per cent more calories without you doing anything more strenuous than turning down the thermostat. (Some experts believe that the rise in obesity and advent of central heating are not entirely unrelated.)

The festive period is when your best-laid workout plans go out the advent calendar window – and where EMOM comes in. The fitness industry loves an acronym, and few more than this, which stands for Every Minute On The Minute. Popularised by CrossFit, it’s a simple but incredibly effective way to structure an ad hoc workout. (It can also form part of a more structured programme, if you increase the weight or reps from week to week.) As the name suggests, you perform an exercise, well, every minute, on the minute. Your rest period is however much of the minute is left. Simple, yes. Easy? No.

EMOM enables you to cram more, harder work into a short space of time than you otherwise might. It can also be easily tailored to suit your goals. To build strength, you might perform one to three reps EMOM with a weight that you’d normally lift four to six times for three to five sets – but for 10, 20 or even 30 minutes, with the rest preventing you from burning out. To burn fat, lower the weight and up the reps to 10, or roughly 20 seconds of the minute. This in turn reduces your rest and gets your heart racing like a behind-schedule elf. Almost any exercise will work, but full-body ones such as burpees or kettlebell swings, even more so.

Your glutes are your biggest and most powerful muscle group, no matter how many days of the week you designate “chest and arms”. So if you’re looking to cancel Christmas, quite literally working your wobbly butt off is a solid tactic. Hitting your backside will have a concomitantly large metabolic effect. Think squats, deadlifts, reverse lunges, step-ups and hip-thrusts, all of which can be performed with added resistance or your own bodyweight. Warm up your sleeping-giant posterior with lateral mini-band walks. (Resistance bands of all sizes are much more travel-friendly than dumbbells.)

Slumbering cheeks are, in fact, a widespread and pernicious biomechanical problem. Because the biggest demand we make of them is as a built-in cushion, they stop firing properly. This has deleterious knock-on effects from impaired performance in the weight room or on the sports pitch to lower back pain and a weird shelf-like tummy that sticks out no matter how non-existent your body fat. This phenomenon, called anterior pelvic tilt, is caused, among other things, by your misfiring glutes, which then protrude like a Kardashian cantilever, and cause a curve in your spine. Time to bring in the new rear.

If you’ve undergone a body transformation akin to that of Mr Tim Allen in The Santa Clause, then your ghost of Christmas future may not look like Shaun T. But you shouldn’t neglect – or underestimate the power of – Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, or Neat (another of those acronyms). Basically, this is all your other activity, from walking to fidgeting. Even an hour of hard training is just four per cent of the whole day, which will only go so far if you then spend the remaining 96 per cent as static as a snowman. Conversely, by moving more, and more often, you can melt a vast number of additional calories without getting out of breath.

This is good practice for life, not just for Christmas, but it’s particularly pertinent at the most slothful time of the year, as Mr Andy Williams didn’t sing. So volunteer to take the dogs out after every meal, or to scrub that roasting tray. Any movement, no matter how small, can contribute to Neat, and thereby increase your overall calorie cull by as much as 25 per cent. Even playing charades will help. Periodically getting up off the couch can burn up to 100 calories more than simply sitting (based on a 12-stone man standing two hours out of four). And that way, your family members might stop guessing My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Illustrations by Mr Adam Nickel