Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Normally, there's no place lonelier than a gym on a holiday. But make no mistake: People will be there on this one. Driven by a misguided sense of virtue, they will be lifting dumbbells with smug sadness, while back at Thanksgiving HQ, their happy families will be bathing in the sweet, delicious aroma of burbling turkey juices and browning pie crusts, toasty in a home that's warm with extended family and hours of continuous oven use.
So just don't, okay? Don't go to the gym. Hell—don't work out at all. Give yourself a break. Are you a relatively healthy person otherwise? Good, because that's important. Give yourself a high five. Now try to enjoy today for what it is: A break from yourself. A day to focus on others and be thankful for what you have. A day to stay home, or go to someone else's home, where you belong.
You know who agrees with me? Melissa Markofski, an exercise physiologist at the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston. "Thanksgiving is one day a year," she says. And your health isn't made in a day. Plus, if you want to get all technical about it, the real risk is in the amount of food you eat, she says.
A typical Thanksgiving dinner is about 3,000 calories, according to Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at America Council on Exercise. Factor in the pre- and post-meal grazing, and you're looking at about 4,500 for the day.
How much are you going to burn in the gym? Uh, sorry. Not 4,500 calories. A 180-pound man might burn 500 calories during a 45-minute gym session. Or he could burn 900 calories by running six eight-minute miles. And afterward, confronted with the biggest, most grandiose meal of the year, odds are high that he'll eat extra, to make up for the calories he just burned.
People often feel justified in "rewarding" their workout efforts by eating more food, especially on special occasions, says Markofski. Plus, the energy you exert with a morning sweat session might tire you out, and as a result, you're less likely to be a high-energy helper when it's time to move tables around, clear plates, or keep the kiddos busy by jumping in leaf piles in the backyard. Post-meal activity will do you more good than a morning workout, anyway. In a study from Virginia's Old Dominion University, men and women who finished a dinner with a 20-minute walk had significantly better blood glucose levels than those who worked out before the meal. The study was done on men and women with diabetes, but still! Whether or not you have diabetes, you should just go ahead and skip the gym. "While the effect may not be as profound in non-diabetics, the principle is the same for everyone," Markofski says. See? What'd I tell you?
My wisdom comes from years as an endurance athlete. Back when I was competing, I refused to skip a Thanksgiving workout, no matter where I was. I'd even work out on Christmas. Did I get faster or stronger? I dunno. Probably not. But I certainly missed some serious fun time with the family. Just ask my two ex-wives. Where I should have memories of my now 19-year-old daughter growing up, I have memories of dirt trails. Endless, emotionless trails.
What I should have done is stay home, help in the kitchen, and just try not to gorge myself into a food coma. Markofski recommends marking the day a win by sticking to reasonable portions, cutting back on dinner rolls, and limiting your pre-dinner snacking to vegetables.
And if you really want to work out, do it tomorrow, bright and early. Today's a rest day. It's been on the calendar the whole year. All you have to do is enjoy it.