At this time of year our attention is naturally focused on one person: Santa. Have you ever wondered how Santa gets in shape for his yearly sleigh ride to deliver gifts to good boys and girls around the globe? Like many elite athletes, Santa does not publicly discuss his training or his fitness. There are certainly no published studies that report his one repetition maximum strength or his maximal oxygen uptake. Given this lack of information, I attempted to make an educated guess about Santa’s training, fitness and health.
By all accounts, Santa is overweight. While we don’t know his body mass index, he would probably be considered obese. Furthermore, he appears to have a large waist circumference, indicating a high level of visceral fat. This suggests that Santa is a high risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. This combination can lead to a heart attack and, possibly, death at a relatively young age.
But Santa has avoided this fate, and seems to be living a healthy life. His secret, no doubt, is regular exercise. There is good evidence that maintaining a high level of physical fitness can reduce the risk of death in people who are obese (and everyone else). I believe that Santa engages in regular exercise to prepare for his annual Christmas Eve journey. Think of Santa as an athlete who trains in the offseason to get ready for the big game.
Santa’s training likely includes endurance, strength and flexibility exercises. In order to visit every home around the world in one night, Santa moves quickly. This suggests that he has a high maximal aerobic capacity as well as good endurance. This is a result of both high-intensity interval training and long-duration, lower intensity training, similar to what a marathon runner might do. Evidence for his good aerobic fitness is shown by the fact that he flies away from each home with a hearty “ho, ho, ho.” If he were out of shape, he would be too short of breath to speak, much less give such a robust farewell.
Santa must also dedicate training time to improving his strength. His sack of gifts is certainly very heavy and he repeatedly carries it up and down chimneys. In addition to traditional weight lifting, Santa probably also engages in plyometric training, which involves explosive movements that develop muscle power. Santa must also have good flexibility in order to squeeze through narrow spaces and move quickly without pulling a muscle. This is the result of stretching and, likely, other exercises such as yoga.
Santa is also educated about sports nutrition. The cookies and milk you leave for him are more than a reward for delivering gifts at your house. The carbohydrates (sugar) in the cookies helps Santa maintain his blood glucose to delay muscle fatigue. Some research suggests that combining carbohydrates with protein is even more effective, so the glass of milk is a good addition. Of course, Santa could have a specialized sports drink, but that doesn’t make for such a good story.
We can learn an important health lesson from Santa. Even though he is overweight, through regular exercise, Santa has reduced his risk of health problems and maintained his fitness at a level that allows him to complete his necessary activities. Like Santa, all of us can benefit from being physically active, whether we are overweight or not. He would likely be healthier and be able to perform his job better if he lost weight, but I’m not about to tell Santa what to do!
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.