There’s a reason even grown adults spending the holiday at home alone call it “Thanksgiving break”: the Wednesday through Sunday of the fourth week of November is the year’s prime time to eat, then nap, then eat, then nap again, eschewing any semblance of a typical schedule. For a lot of people, that also means saying “thank you, next” to the 8 a.m. Pilates video that’s anchored your days since March — and getting exposed to family comments about “working off” the sweet potato pie you look forward to all year.
While Zoom Thanksgiving might give you a much-needed break from your judgiest aunt’s raised eyebrows, the body-shaming noise can get really loud over the holidays. This festive season might be especially tough for folks who have difficult relationships with food — calls to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline has increased as much as 78% during the COVID-19 pandemic, USA Today reports.
As much as you may know there’s nothing wrong with skipping a workout to bake pie with your mom, or going back for seconds and thirds, taking a break from your typical fitness routine during the holiday can still trigger feelings of guilt or shame.
Feeling Guilty About Skipping Workouts? You're Not Alone
Not everyone will experience stress around food and fitness to the degree that it becomes painful, but there is a word that describes that nagging "bad" feeling. Orthorexia, says certified intuitive eating coach Carolina Guízar, MS, RDN, CDN, is a kind of disordered eating where people “become so focused on eating only 'healthy' or 'clean' foods that it actually becomes unhealthy.” Simone Samuels, a personal training specialist and Superfit Hero sponsored athlete, adds that orthorexia can look like "feeling the need to exercise after eating a slice of pound cake at a Thanksgiving dinner or spending time at the gym to the exclusion of other areas of one’s life.” That pervasive guilt around fitness and food doesn’t automatically mean you need a diagnosis, but recognizing that it’s not just you can help you feel less isolated, especially this time of year.
It can be tough to pinpoint the emotions behind these feelings, because they’re often seen as signs of "commitment.” "I used to feel very smug about my 'self-control' and 'discipline,' but when I started easing up my judgment of other people's bodies — diversifying both your [Instagram] feed and your IRL friendship circle is a great way to do this — I noticed myself being less judgmental of my own," says Helen Phelan, a Pilates instructor who specializes in body neutrality and mindfulness.
Connect With Your Body's Needs
Part of being connected to your body is remembering that there's nothing to feel existentially guilty about for letting non-gym goals (like having a merry holiday) take priority. "Uncouple accomplishments from self-worth," Samuels advises. "You’re no less of a person if you haven’t attained a specific goal."
Still, you also might feel a little unmoored by taking a few days off from working out, if exercise is usually a big part of your daily routine. "Pushing yourself physically can help you become engaged with your body — feel connected to it, your body and you — rather than feeling separate from it," says Emma Middlebrook, a personal trainer and the owner of REP Movement, a workout space in Portland, Oregon, that emphasizes body affirmation, anti-racism, and queerness. Sometimes you want to wake up early during the holidays to get that sprint session in because you like how it feels, not because you're trying to run away from your sister's judgment. Knowing the difference between the two is key.
Try to be as gentle with yourself about approaching these tough topics as you would with a kiddo you love who's worried about how their body looks. "Questions that can be asked are, 'am I feeling stressed when it comes to my food?' 'Is this stress that I am feeling going to negate the benefits of my food?' 'What is the benefit I get out of worrying about my food?'" says Ali Duncan, a yoga instructor and founder of Urban Sanctuary, the first women-run, Black-owned yoga studio in Denver, Colorado.
Of course, not everyone who has a strained relationship with exercise over the holidays will want or need to seek professional support for it. But it can be helpful to know that you don't have to struggle with these feelings alone. "Many folks that finally give themselves permission to reach out for professional help have been struggling in isolation because they believed they were 'not sick enough,'" says certified clinical mental health counselor Melissa Carmona, MS, NCC, L.C.M.H.C. "It is OK to ask for help no matter where you may be in your journey." If you’re looking for help, you can call, chat, or text the National Eating Disorders Association’s helpline to get support during an especially weird holiday.
Simone Samuels, personal training specialist, Superfit Hero sponsored athlete
Carolina Guízar, MS, RDN, CDN, certified intuitive eating coach, founder of Eathority
Ali Duncan, yoga instructor, founder of Urban Sanctuary
Emma Middlebrook, personal trainer, owner of REP Movement
Melissa Carmona, MS, NCC, L.C.M.H.C., certified clinical mental health counselor
Helen Phelan, Pilates instructor, founder of Helen Phelan Studio