’Tis the season to get moving

Avoid becoming a couch potato in the holidays.

At the end of a long, busy year, the temptation to break out of our normal routines and just do nothing is strong, but what is the cost of slowing down too much?

If your idea of an idyllic holiday involves spending countless hours lounging on the couch, binge-watching your favourite series, and keeping the kids entertained with television programmes, you may want to reconsider your holiday programme.

In our last article of the year, I want to highlight the health implications of spending too much time taking part in typical lazy day activities, and how a few small changes can help make this your healthiest holiday yet.

I find that our first inclination is usually to justify why we deserve to do nothing. We feel we’ve earned the break, that we can skip our normal gym routines, and that we will get back into the swing of things in the new year.

We also tend to spend more time indoors, watching TV or reading, and eat more than usual. The common belief is that these activities will help us feel rested and recharged after the holidays; yet when we get back to work in January, we feel more exhausted than ever before.

Why the disconnect?

Apart from poor diet, the biggest obstacles to holiday health are not moving enough, spending too much time indoors, and excessive exposure to electronic devices such as television and computers.

These activities are not natural, and disrupt the body’s ability to self-heal and regulate normal bodily processes effectively.

This can lead to negative health consequences in the long run.

Before the industrial revolution, people were much more active than today. Our present-day societies are designed to encourage sitting.

Cars, office jobs, drive-throughs, televisions, and computers afford us the opportunity to expend less energy to complete tasks. This is a far cry from the typical pre-industrial lifestyle of farming, hunting, doing manual labour, and walking from point A to B.

Research shows that sitting for prolonged periods is detrimental to human health (even when participating in some form of exercise regularly):

Sitting decreases non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is the energy (calories) the body expends while doing daily activities (excluding exercise, eating, and sleeping)

Bursts of NEAT throughout the day help the body to handle insulin and vitamin uptake, regulate hormones, and decrease inflammation

Without NEAT, the body cannot handle these processes effectively. Excessive sitting is also linked to osteoporosis, coronary heart disease, back pain, type 2 diabetes, various cancers, low moods and depression.

Due to lack of NEAT, sitting for prolonged periods may also contribute to weight gain, despite good eating and exercise habits.

Television viewing is one of the most time-consuming sedentary activities. Many of the negative effects of TV are as a result of sitting for too long.

The more TV people watch, the less time they have for other physical activities. Several studies show that TV viewing, in part due to its sedentary nature, negatively impacts metabolic health, is associated with weight gain, and an increased risk of developing diabetes.

Children are also at risk, and parents should exercise caution when it comes to how much television they allow. Research indicates that greater levels of TV exposure are linked to higher incidences of inactivity, obesity, sleeping difficulties, and aggression in toddlers and infants.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that children under two should not be exposed to TV at all, and that parents should limit television time for children of all ages.

Electronic devices also emit bright light and radiation, which may have an adverse effect on health.

Staring at TV, computer, or e-reader screens for prolonged periods of time is linked to negative effects on eye health, and decreased sleep quality when used before bedtime.

Lastly, the excessive time spent indoors when using electronic devices also affects sleep negatively, as the sun plays a critical role in regulating the body’s natural circadian rhythms.

Of course, occasionally watching an episode of your favourite series, or going out to the cinemas with friends or family can serve as a fun way to relax and bond with others.

However, it is important to make sure that these types of activities do not form the bulk of your leisure time. Here are some practical ways to make sure your whole family makes the most of these holidays:

Take advantage of the free time to take up a new sport or hobby.

Integrate physical activity and family bonding time. Take walks together, go hiking, play putt-putt, swim, and cook meals together.

Play boardgames together instead of spending time in front of the television screen.

Decide on designated “no technology” days for the whole family and take some time just to be together and connect.

Use the time to educate your children and give them new experiences – research the local attractions such as butterfly farms, bird sanctuaries, or aquariums in your area. Have fun and enjoy the holidays.