Monday, December 20, 2010

Reminders for Personal Trainers During the Holidays

Managing the Holidays – Reminders for Personal Trainers

As you pull up, the house is alive with shimmering lights and a murmur of festive music. The frosted windows hide a frenzy of activity within. With your gift in hand, a delightful platter of hard cheeses and savory meats, you make your way towards the door of the first holiday gathering of the season.

Inside, the warm atmosphere puts you at ease and you quickly gravitate towards a familiar crowd. In the midst of a social delirium it is easier to lose track of, or rationalize, that extra helping of food, second trip to the dessert table, or staying out later than usual. Also, most partygoers aren’t bashful about kicking back a few beverages, and why would they be? No one wants to be labeled as lame or uptight, especially during the holidays.

Chances are you'll be sporting an ugly sweater sometime over the holiday season!

As personal trainers it is important to guide our clients through the holiday season unscathed by temptations not aligned with their health and fitness goals. We need to educate our clients and give them methods for managing the hustle and bustle of the holidays. In fact, what they learn from us might be the most beneficial gift they receive. Physical activity has been important to the study of the mind-body connection. The difference between people who relapse into negative behavior, and those who don’t, might be as simple as holding onto a sense of normalcy. The purpose of this article is to articulate the positive effects of exercise on physical and mental health, and the importance of maintaining a routine through the holidays. Exercise should be considered an important part of a daily routine, especially during the holidays, in order to maintain control over one’s cognitive state.

Don't be bashful about enjoying yourself during the holidays, remember: Planning, and Moderation are key!

When a client seeks the help of a personal trainer they have already taken the first small steps towards change (Finch, 2010). Most importantly, they’ve acknowledged they have a problem and that they need help to correct it. Not unlike other addictions, failure to incorporate regular exercise can have devastating effects on one’s health. Luckily, by the time a client seeks the help of a personal trainer they have ventured into the action stage of behavioral change (Finch, 2010). Depending on the relationship with the client, important habits for maintenance of an exercise routine may already be in place. If your client/s have been with you a long time managing the holidays might be as easy as providing them with verbal reminders during the last few training sessions prior to big holiday events or extended periods of vacation. However, new clients may require more aggressive tactics to enforce healthy habits. This might include, but is not limited to, scheduling workouts throughout the holidays, providing them printed guidelines, or communicating by telephone, e-mail, or text while they are away from the gym. To help your client successfully, it is important to understand their behavioral background and break down barriers that may be limiting their exercise participation (Finch, 2010). Consider the following research into the mind-body connection and how it might apply to your client’s routine.

Lack of time is cited as the factor most likely to influence one’s behavior (Buckworth & Dishman, 2007). In a season where lack of time is all too common, being more productive would be very beneficial. Investigation into the effect of exercise on cognitive functioning has produced exciting results. Physical activity has shown to induce chemical changes in the brain, including concentrations of neurotransmitters such as Acetylcholine, which positively impact brain function (Landers & Arent, 2007). One would expect that increases in cognitive functioning would allow the focus on a single task to last longer, thus becoming more efficient. We’ve all experienced the increased pressure of the holiday season. During the time crunch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, exercise is often the first thing neglected by people looking to fit everything in. Developing appropriate time management skills may be needed in order to maintain a priority on exercise. As a trainer it is important to hold clients accountable for their sessions, even if that means charging them for not showing up. Another way a trainer can help the client is by providing them with time efficient workouts during the holidays. As we know, for exercise to be effective 20 – 30 minutes is all that is necessary (Finch, 2010). Therefore, lack of time should not be a viable excuse for not exercising. From the awkward, forced, interaction with distance relatives to tracking down the perfect gift for a special someone, feelings of stress and anxiety may also present themselves during the holiday season.

During times of heightened stress and anxiety, exercise can help stabilize physical as well as mental health (Landers & Arent, 2007). Chemical changes in the body also are highlighted in these studies. Many popular models have been investigated, but the ones that most correlate with the stress of the holidays are outlined here. It has been hypothesized that exercise induces a calming effect on animals and humans via increasing endogenous opioids in the blood. Endorphins have been identified as the main opioid increasing due physical activity, and levels of Endorphins have been shown to increase through sustained aerobic exercise or short, intense resistant training (Landers & Arent, 2007). This is important because modalities of exercise vary between individuals, and as stated earlier effective exercise does not need to last long. No matter what your client’s preference for exercise, they can get the positive benefits from increased Endorphin activity. However, considering the nature of the blood-brain barrier it is unlikely that and increase in blood plasma endorphins are the sole reason for a reduction in anxiety and stress (Landers & Arent, 2007). Improvements in mood have also been linked to exercise behavior that lasts for many weeks. For a clients’ success, this is another reason to keep them consistent during the holidays.

We all know that children have a hard time sleeping the night before Christmas. However, adults may have a hard time finding a restful night sleep throughout the holiday season. Another connection between exercise and physical and mental health is known as the Serotonin hypothesis. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can have a positive effect on maintaining a positive mood. Serotonin levels are highest in those who experience a restful night sleep, which is when Serotonin is produced. Exercise has shown to have a positive effect getting a restful night sleep, and has also shown to increase cellular Serotonin levels during the day (Landers & Arent, 2007). With late night parties, hectic travel schedules, and general increase of excitement during the holidays sleep can be hard to come by; a boost in Serotonin levels could make the difference in your client’s mood. In order to effectively get enough sleep it might be beneficial for clients to adopt a pre-bedtime routine. Such routines typically include: putting closure on the current days’ events, preparation for the following day, investing some time in an activity which is relaxing. Most importantly, one should put aside all distractions and commit to being in bed, with the lights out, by a pre-determined time. If exercise can aid us in maximizing of our limited sleep time, that is just more ammunition to keep it part of the normal routine.

A final piece of the mind-body puzzle is the concept of self-esteem. Self-esteem has a large impact on mental health simply because it is how we perceive our self; self-esteem is the value we place on our own existence (Landers & Arent, 2007). The holidays can be extremely hard on the perception of self because of the social interaction between peers and family members. When we see a sibling, or peer, receive a gift, or praise, from a significant other, thought to be greater than what we receive, it is safe to say that impacts our perceived self-worth. When our self-esteem is damaged, it can negatively impact our intrinsic motivation (Buckworth & Dishman, 2007). During the holidays, clients may need further external motivation to encourage exercise adherence. Social support has been positively correlated with physical activity adherence. Social interaction is even a stronger factor for support if the person is considered a valuable friend (Buckworth & Dishman, 2007). Thus, the trainer-client relationship is very important to success. Exercise has been shown, in numerous studies, to increase scores on self-esteem surveys (Landers & Arent, 2007). Interestingly, Arent et al. (2000) found Adults who participate in weight training typically report experiencing the greatest boost in self-esteem. This is an important aspect for personal trainers because the best results, both physically and mentally, come from combining and changing training modalities.

In conclusion, we all have vices that trigger unhealthy behavior, and the tensions of the holiday season seem to be exacerbate them. Clients could be experiencing increased stress because they wait until the last minute to finish their shopping. Perhaps they are at increased risk of relapse because they have trouble putting down the fork, or over-indulge at the bar. Maybe in the past they have suffered from insecurities relating to their perception of self. All of these behaviors may arise due to the uniqueness of the holiday season, and can affect ones’ daily routine. As a trainer, it is important to identify the causes of negative behavior within our clients. Then provide them with a plan to navigate the holiday season with a sense of control and continue using external motivation to minimize their chance of relapse back into a negative behavior pattern. Remind your clients that the holidays don’t have to be a time where they let themselves go. In fact, clients should emerge from the holiday tussle with heightened spirits and an eagerness to continue their progress in the New Year.


Buckworth, J., & Dishman, R.K., (2007). Exercise Adherence. In G. Tenebaum & R. Eklund (Eds.) Handbook of Sport Psychology (3rd. ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

Finch, L.M. (2010). Overview of exercise psychology. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

Landers, D.M., & Arent, S.M., (2007). Physical Activity and Mental Health. In G. Tenebaum & R. Eklund (Eds.) Handbook of Sport Psychology (3rd. ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.

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