Christin Everson by Christin Everson

With the approach of the holidays comes the return of familiar marketing messages such as Torch the Turkey Workouts or guides on how to Burn off Thanksgiving Dinner. This marketing strategy is likely used to inspire consumers to make healthy choices during the holidays or as a creative way to connect a holiday with a business service. While unintended, this type of messaging can cause potential harm to consumers, furthering the stereotype that a holiday surrounded by food should not be enjoyed independently from exercise. This narrative can trigger negative health behaviors, encourage disordered eating habits and challenge overall feelings of well-being.

Holidays are special occasions that can allow us to gather with loved ones, take time for reflection and enjoy food that connects with a season and/or a culture. They are short time periods that can provide joy, connection to something greater, or even a mental or emotional break from the routine of daily life. It is important to note that the holidays do not always inspire happiness and can, in fact, promote additional stress, anxiety or depression. As health coaches and exercise professionals, we are uniquely positioned to provide care and support for our communities during these times. In doing so, it is important to be aware of the impact of our words and how they can greatly affect the feelings and  perceptions of health for your participants.

Why Messaging Matters

Standard holiday fitness messaging leads consumers to believe that a holiday, like Thanksgiving, must always be paired with exercise, as a means to “work off” that meal—as though the act of finding joy in eating a seasonal meal with loved ones can derail one’s health goals entirely. Or that people need to be punished for or make up for that eating, or that your actions label you as “good” or “bad.” It’s not a stretch to believe that this type of thinking may lead to a less-than-healthy relationship with food and celebration.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines disordered eating as a “range of irregular eating behaviors that may or may not warrant a diagnoses of a specific eating disorder.” Included as a symptom of disordered eating is “using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to make up for bad foods consumed.”

Let’s decode a few standard messages that we may see this time of year:

  • Work if off, before packing it on.
  • Burn the Bird
  • Gobble Till ya Wobble Workout

These messages convey the broad sentiment that:

  • Thanksgiving is a holiday simply about binge eating.
  • To be healthy, you must exercise it off.

While we know this is not the intention, these messages can cause harm by increasing feelings of guilt or shame around food. Ultimately, these statements are directly aligned with disordered eating behaviors and only support one concept of health: calories in, calories out.

Messaging Suggestions

Consider the intention of your marketing messaging and how it effects the consumer. Remove the notion of exercising off a meal. Instead, broaden your message to reduce potential negative effects and fully support your participants.

Here are messages that can both inspire and support your community:

  • Holistic health messaging: Focus your messaging on the holistic experience of exercise, beyond the notion of calories in and calories out. Communicate the benefits for mental, emotional and social health.
  • Focus on community connection: The holidays are all about connecting with loved ones, and we know movement is a great way to spend time with friends and family. Demonstrate how people can be united through a shared exercise experience.
  • Provide resources: Serving your participants doesn’t mean providing only exercise-based resources. Curate and share a list of ways that you can offer support for the whole person.
  • Validate: Broadly validate your community in all of the unique ways they experience the holidays.

Consider the effect your marketing messaging has on participants. Remove the emphasis on exercising to offset eating and calorie intake and instead emphasize self-care strategies that more holistically support your community.