I don’t know what Christmas dinner looks like in your house, but at cousin Lynn’s place, where our family has gathered every year for the past two decades until COVID rudely interceded, Christmas dinner involved all the Italian indulgences you can think of (manicotti, Stromboli, meatballs, osso buco) from her side of the family, plus all the Irish staples (corned beef, mashed potatoes, stuffed cabbage, and soda bread) from her husband’s. The dessert tray is a mishmash of traditions, but always involves two types of cake, cookies, and the requisite apple pie. Thus, a holiday dinner so heavy with courses and calories that the mere act of leaving the table and trekking to the car to head home takes seriously strong quads.
You can understand why, if at all possible, it’s best to arrive for dinner with a deficit of calories and room in your gut. And while we don’t advocate supersized meals on a regular basis — or workouts that leave you majorly energy-depleted — there are times in life (holiday meals, family weddings, the Super Bowl) when it’s best to acknowledge the likelihood of overeating in advance, and head some of the damage off at the pass with pre-emptive calorie burn.
So how does one do that? It starts with math. Make your calculations to figure out just how much you’re going to have to burn. Two slabs of roast beef + mashed potatoes + string beans + dinner roll + gravy + chocolate cake + two beers = ~2,000 calories
That’s a lot, but it’s not insurmountable. It’s the equivalent of running an 8-minute mile for 60 minutes, followed by 30 minutes of jumping rope, 30 minutes of jumping jacks, and 30 minutes of running up and down the stairs in your house or apartment building. Will you do all that in the hours before you eat? Unlikely. But make it your goal to negate as many of the additional calories as you can by working out hard and leaving the tank on empty.
Truth be told, some festive meals are too out-of-control in the calorie department to be burned up in a single exercise routine. For these, focus on workouts that rev your metabolism and help keep it elevated, even when your body is at rest. Metabolism-boosting workouts are best done as close to mealtime as possible, so you can reap the benefits of the extended-calorie burn.
The other option is to spread out your workouts to chip away at the glut of calories you’ll consume at your big meal. Here’s how that works: If your indulgence sets you back 3,000 calories (i.e., you’re having a Super Bowl party and you’re planning to house a whole pizza and wash it down with a couple of beers), start two days before with a 600-calorie-burning workout. Do it again the day before, the day of, and the two days after the event. This should be in addition to whatever your usual routine looks like. Over a five-day period, you’ll even out the spike in food consumption.
The Best Metabolic Workout Moves
Mix, match, sweat.
Burpee Jump Squats
Why: The more muscle you have, the bigger the boost to your metabolism. But you also want to elevate your heart rate. This combo move does both.
How to: Perform a traditional burpee (starting and ending in the standing position). After completing the move, do a low squat, push through your heels into a high vertical jump, and land with bended knees. Repeat burpee.
Your plan: Alternate five minutes of burpee jump squats with five minutes of running for 30 minutes.
Mountain Climbers/Running Lunges
Why: Compound exercises like this one strengthen all your major muscle groups while making your body work overtime to switch back and forth between movements, increasing the afterburn effects.
How to: Start in an extended pushup position. Hike your right knee out to the side and up toward your chest. Return to straight legs; repeat on opposite side. Stand up and switch to running lunges: From a low lunge position, swing your back leg through to the front, knee bent, and hop in the air before returning to start position.
Your plan: Do two minutes of mountain climbers, followed by 10 running lunges on each side. Repeat combo 5 times.
Fast/Slow Strength Training
Why: Muscle mass burns more calories than fat mass (during a workout and while you are at rest). Some research shows that by performing the “easy” part of a strength move (a.k.a. eccentric contractions, a.k.a. lowering a dumbbell to the floor after doing a bicep curl) in a slow and controlled manner, you fire up your metabolism and burn more calories in the 72 hours after your workout than when you quickly lower the weight.
How to: Perform a circuit of biceps curls, triceps curls, leg presses, and weighted lunges in a pattern fast concentric contractions (loading the weight or the “hard” part of the movement), followed by a slow eccentric contraction or release.
Your plan: Five sets, 10 reps each, of biceps, triceps, leg press, and weighted lunges. Use a weight just heavy enough to make the last rep very hard. Aim for one count to load your muscle, and five counts to release.
The Best Mega-Calorie Burning Moves
Why: High-intensity workouts tell your body to release hormones like adrenaline and human growth hormone that encourage fat metabolism. This helps you burn a lot of calories in a short period of time, but you have to commit to all-out effort to reap the benefits.
How to: 60 seconds sprint, 60 seconds jog. Repeat 20 times.
Calories burned: 600
Jumping Jacks/Jumping Rope/Box Jump
Why: Jumping movements elevate heart rate higher, faster, than low-impact exercises.
How to: 60 seconds jumping jacks, 60 seconds jumping rope, 20 box jumps. Repeat 15 times.
Calories burned: 600
Why: Nothing fancy here, just some good old-fashioned pavement pounding that adds up to major calories burned.
How to: Hit the roads (or trails) for an hour.
Calories burned: 850-950, depending on your pace (between a 10-minute and 8:30-minute mile)