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Melissa Leier’s Beyond The Weight Room: Whipping Santa Into Shape

Mrs. Claus wrote to Saskatoon Well Being Magazine and, much to their surprise, it wasn’t about a lack of a chimney at the publication’s office. Apparently, Mrs. Claus has enjoyed reading the first eleven issues and has especially enjoyed my column on getting in elite physical shape. She said that she and Santa were planning a beach vacation in the spring and thought Santa might better tolerate the heat and humidity if he dropped a few pounds between Christmas deliveries and the trip. So the Well Being honchos called me and said they had an assignment that was big, red and essential. “Santa? That’s a little preposterous,” I said. “Hasn’t he heard of Jillian Michaels?” A week later they called me again. “We need you to whip Santa into shape,” they said. So I said, “Yeah, probably not. You try to get him off milk and cookies without a television audience to hold him accountable!” The owners of Well Being can be rather persuasive though so I finally agreed.   -Melissa Leier-

Wow, this was going to be a challenge! Well, maybe more of an opportunity; an opportunity to tackle supporting a lifestyle change for someone who has been comfortable with a pattern of behaviours for years. Based on the initial inquiry from Mrs. Claus, I had to wonder if Santa himself actually wants to make a lifestyle change and what that might look like in his eyes. I thought that I had better find out.

Starting off with a readiness assessment and to establish a baseline for Santa, I learned that he has been contemplating becoming more active for a while, but hadn’t taken the next step. Recently, his annual physical check-up indicated a good level of overall wellness and, with some recommendations, he was not only medically cleared to become more active, but encouraged to do so.

When I asked what he had in mind for long-term goals, he replied that, yes, he knew he should exercise and eat better. When I asked him what that meant to him, it turned out that he really wasn’t sure.

Rather than just telling him what to do based on my knowledge and expertise in health and fitness, and then hoping he bought into the ideas I suggested, I decided that I would take more of a collaborative approach to help him establish his own plan. Ultimately, as a fitness coach, I need to remember that these are his goals—not mine— and my role is to guide him to where he wants to be. I needed to find out what was important to him and what was going to motivate him toward a positive lifestyle change.

Santa explained that what was really important to him was to be able to be healthy enough to play catch with his grandchildren, go hunting and fishing with his son, to have many years to come of vacationing with Mrs. Claus and to have fun without excessive stress on his body during the busy hectic times of the holiday season.

I asked him what it would look like for him six months down the road if he was achieving his goals and he said that he saw himself sustaining a habit of regular activity three to four times per week in combinations of cardiovascular, strength activities and recreational sports with his family. He also hoped to have developed a better understanding of fuelling the body effectively to feel great and satisfy his taste buds.

We discussed what kind of opportunities might exist to incorporate changes right away and he told me that he has a local community centre with a walking track that he had been curious about trying out, especially when it is too icy outside to risk slips and falls. The facility also has a variety of classes to take part in, from circuit training to swimming and yoga programs that he thought would give him some variety. Mrs. Claus was interested in a couples’ cooking class every Sunday that was focused on recipes for heart health. There was also a Saturday night dancing group and he did like to put on his dancing shoes and hit the town two-stepping!

Getting started with Santa, I asked him to keep a journal of his nutrition intake for a week, including amounts and portion sizes, as well as timing. I encouraged him to balance each meal throughout the day with fairly similar content and volume, rather than one large meal at supper. Another suggestion was to try to balance each meal with a lean protein source, low-sugar carbohydrate source and many fibrous vegetables. I also asked him to track his water intake.

Just starting a journal alone is a great way to bring a new self- awareness of what it is we are putting into our bodies and to recognize patterns. It also helps keep us accountable to fuel our bodies with better nutritional choices.

Melissa Leier SaskatoonPhoto by Tyler Harris
The second step was to examine patterns that his journal revealed and to develop action plans. Some quick fixes we found to help clean up his daily nutrition included:

• No need to add salt to meals. Most of the time, we actually get enough sodium from the salt that occurs naturally in foods such as meat, eggs, milk products, fruit and vegetables. A high salt diet increases the risk of developing high blood pressure. Herbs and spices, blends like Mrs. Dash, lemon juice, onion, garlic, etc. can be used to flavour foods instead of adding salt.

• Drink more water. Skip the pop and fruit juice since they’re empty calories and basically just all sugar.

• Learn to prepare meals by planning time to grocery shop and buy fresh produce and lean cuts of meat, rather than packaged, canned and processed foods.

• Use the right cooking methods. Use non-stick pans and non-stick cooking spray when needed, instead of dumping in oil or margarine.

These changes would help reduce his blood pressure and decrease his risk of diabetes, which would allow him to enjoy the odd cookie or treat once in a while, rather than possibly having to avoid them completely. This was also a chance for Santa to learn to prepare delicious meals with his family, using creativity with spices and flavours. Don’t forget about the cost savings of preparing his own food instead of ordering take-out. More money for that vacation with Mrs. Claus!

Regular activity goes hand in hand with nutrition. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) and Health Canada suggest that the minimum guidelines for older adults, age 65+, would be to take part in at least 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity each week. No, this doesn’t mean once a week Santa should run a marathon and he’s good—that would not be beneficial or safe. This activity is best done spread out into sessions of 10 minutes or more throughout the week. In addition to the cardiovascular activity, it is also imperative to add muscle-strengthening activities using major muscle groups at least twice a week to help support bone health and improve posture and balance.

So, if Santa goes dancing Saturday evenings, walks for 30 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after his strength training circuit and then takes a swim or goes to a yoga class on occasion, he’s doing great! With his strength training circuit, he should target the major muscle groups of the legs and gluteal muscles, back and chest. Exercises to start with could be body weight squats and walking lunges, kneeling push-ups and a pull-down or row exercise. To add in some core and shoulder stability, he can include an opposite arm and leg raise from a kneeling and palms-down position on an exercise mat. Strength training can have a profound effect on improved bone health, arthritis relief, increased metabolic rate and reduced risk of heart disease.

I’ll make sure to check in with Santa in a few months. It will be no surprise at all to hear that Santa has experienced a significant improvement in his blood pressure and has lowered his cholesterol levels. He may be down three notches on his belt and he should be able to load up his sleigh full of packages and presents with ease and sleep like a baby at night. Most importantly, he will achieve a new self-awareness and establish enjoyable healthy lifestyle habits that will put him on track to being in great shape for Christmas 2013!

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