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Move more, sit less and celebrate outside this holiday season

Mai Ly Degnan for NPR

For many, wintertime celebrations conjure memories of gathering with friends and family, sitting cozied up around a fireplace. There is nothing wrong with getting cozy—after all, we all love some hygge (the Danish concept of enjoying comfort and good company in a warm atmosphere).

But we already spend too much time sitting around: 80% of American adults and youth fail to meet the recommended amount of daily movement needed to stave off chronic disease and with the pandemic, adolescents spend over seven hours a daylooking at a screen.

Plus the winter holiday season has become synonymous with celebrations that have us moving less while eating more — and this has been exacerbated by a long period of pandemic-related sedentarism. So this year, consider stepping outside of your usual routine and adding movement to your traditions — and bringing some of them outdoors.

Many holiday traditions have become more and more sedentary over the last few decades. As many Americans transitioned away from doing the physical labor that went into our festivities (growing and preparing foods, making gifts and decorations) there's not much left for us to do but consume what we can easily procure with a swipe of a finger.

Many people have a notion that we'll atone for holiday season sloth by focusing extra hard on wellness in the new year, but research shows that the physical effects of sedentary holidays can linger indefinitely.

Body movement is an essential part of preventing and managing many diseases. Stepping, bending, twisting, lifting, reaching and pulling motions are integral to our body (and its parts) working well. Luckily, workouts are not the only way to increase your daily movement. You can pepper physical activity into daily life and certainly fit some into your celebrations.

The recipe for a dynamic celebration is simple. Take any typically sedentary aspect of your holiday and create a version that moves your entire body (or parts or the body) more. Many times, simply taking the activity outdoors adds movement, and it certainly adds a dose of nature. Finally, add a splash of what I call "vitamin community" by engaging your friends and family in holiday prep and watch the movement—and joy—elevate.

Adults spend twice as much time in nature when they have friends or family who make a concerted effort to get outside. So, be the catalyst in your community! You don't have to lose the coziness of the holidays – but you can make your traditions more dynamic and take hygge on the move.

Yes, dynamic celebrations take more work, but that's the point. You were wondering how to get more movement, more nature time, more time with friends and more time to celebrate? Here are 11 ideas to try. (And bonus: socializing outdoors is also a smart idea right now given the realities of the pandemic.)

1. Forage for décor

Whether it's a wreath or a centerpiece you'd like to feature, get outside to reach, bend, and squat to gather what you need to make your own. You can even host a wreath-making party. Head out to find beautiful components on the beach (driftwood and seashells), in the woods (pinecones, acorns, chestnuts, and storm-blown boughs), even clippings from yours or a neighbor's garden like silver dollar branches or lantern plants. Then set everyone up outside with some wire, cutting tools, old jars for arrangements, a little music and snacks!

2. Walk to get groceries

No matter what you're celebrating, walking (or driving and walking part way) to the grocery store is a great way to add a bout of walking in. Even a moderately-paced walk is good for your health and lifting and carrying bags of food not only works on your arm strength, it's an easy way to add intensity without having to go faster. And walking outdoors can help you process stress and think more clearly too.

3. Plan a hiking advent

School is out for the week leading up to the Christmas holiday. Plan a week of daily hikes, text the times and starting points to friends, and enjoy this inexpensive, active socializing that gets everyone outside and off the devices. You can mix it up too! Add a forest or urban-themed scavenger hunt sheet, another day bring a thermos or two of hot cider, or set out to make or hang edible ornaments for the birds. Puts those steps per day toward burning off the kids' countdown excitement too.

/ Mai Ly Degnan for NPR
Mai Ly Degnan for NPR

4. Make your own candles.

Go it solo or throw a pre-holiday outdoor candle-making party—especially great if candles are central to your celebration, like with Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Candle making just requires a little outdoor space where everyone can squat or bend down toward wax-filled containers to repeatedly dip long wicks before hanging them up to dry. These candles will not only be infused with your fine-motor movements, but also additional meaning and memory. Find a tutorial online.

5. Host a gingerbread hike – or hot toddies for the grownups

Instead of the usual cookie-decorating sugar overload experience, Set up a gingerbread decorating station at a park or campground tables and lead kids there on a one to two-mile hike. Watch them lose their minds with excitement at the surprise waiting at the end of the hike (and then spend the sugar on the hike back out). The adult version: A hot toddy walk! Create a hot drink station and have folks fill their own mug before taking a stroll through the neighborhood or woods.

6. Do some "old school" food prep

Blenders and food processors are convenient, but doing things by hand adds in some healthy movement. Consider taking time to slow down and use your arms the way previous generations did. Find an old recipe that takes a lot of effort and connect to older rituals by putting your phone-clutching muscles to broader use: Shell nuts, knead some dough, roll out the pie crust and whip the meringue by hand, the way our much stronger grandmothers used to!

7. Set up a standing soup course or dessert walk

If you're having a holiday party or family meal, help guests break up an evening of chair-sitting by encouraging different positions throughout a meal. Serving soup in mugs allows guests to stand and stretch their legs as needed; a portable dessert makes taking a gentle walk or roll at the end of the meal easier.

8. Organize a winter physical games night

A lot of winter is spent sitting down and our bodies can ache with the missing movement. Schedule a short, weekly outdoor meet-up in a backyard or park where kids and adults can play catch, throw a light-up frisbee, kick a soccer ball, or if it's snowy out, have a speed snowman-building contest at dinner time. In just 90 minutes you can have a pot-luck dinner, physical activity, friend-time, fun, and outside time done before you go inside for the evening.

9. Stretch while you wrap

There's a lot of sitting to be found in daily life, but there's nothing saying it all has to be done in a chair. If you're going to spend an hour or two gift wrapping, set yourself up on the floor (add a folded blanket or cushions as needed) and move through a variety of active positions as you're working. Sitting with your legs crossed, in a V-shape, or stretched out in front of you is a simple way to care for tight leg muscles and stiff joints. Just holding up your own torso instead of resting it on the back of a chair works your core muscles more and uses more energy, too.

10. Celebrate around an outdoor fire

It's said that a fire warms you twice. The first time by doing the work to source and prepare the wood, and the second as you sit, stand, squat, or dance around it. Consider partying (New Year's Eve, perhaps?) around a firepit that warms in even the deepest of wintertime. Check with your local fire department about backyard fire pit specs; using a pre-built outdoor fireplace or the pits at your local park or campground are also great options.

11. Volunteer dynamically

In addition to monetary donations, consider donating your physical movement this season. Do some heavy lifting at your local food bank, pack meal boxes at a soup kitchen, or get your bends and twists via a community clean-up. Find opportunities in your area by searching volunteers-wanted databases like volunteermatch.org and createthegood.aarp.org.

/ Mai Ly Degnan for NPR
Mai Ly Degnan for NPR

Katy Bowman, M.S. is a biomechanist and the author of nine books, including the bestselling Move Your DNA and her latest book on the importance of movement for children: Grow Wild. Learn more at nutritiousmovement.com.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Katy Bowman