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A challenge to gyms in season for slacking

With gifts to buy, halls to deck, parties to plan and copious amounts of rich, fatty food to be consumed, even devoted fitness buffs might lop a few workouts off the holiday schedule. Less devoted enthusiasts might just say to heck with gym visits altogether.

With gifts to buy, halls to deck, parties to plan and copious amounts of rich, fatty food to be consumed, even devoted fitness buffs might lop a few workouts off the holiday schedule. Less devoted enthusiasts might just say to heck with gym visits altogether.

But health clubs, personal trainers and fitness instructors would like you to know they're here for you during this hectic time - and they'd really, really like you to come in. They're so concerned about the slide toward flabdom that, even before Thanksgiving leftovers are history, they're offering special classes, parties and workout sessions to bolster your flagging motivation and make sure you don't opt for sloth over svelte.

If the major get-in-shape push from clubs comes at the first of the year and the beginning of summer, this is more of a stay-in-shape push. Gyms are livening things up for the holidays, hoping to be more tempting than cheesecake - or at least offering a way to do penance for eating it. Trainers are leaving nothing to chance, mapping out strategies for their clients to maneuver past holiday pitfalls. Instructors are offering abbreviated classes, operating on the premise that a little activity is better than none.

"I think it's better to keep an even keel going versus that panic that comes Jan. 1, when people feel they have to make their New Year's resolutions," says Toni Brown, group fitness director for Spectrum Athletic Clubs.

Although the fabled average holiday weight gain of 7 to 10 pounds has been blasted (it's really only a pound or so), fitness experts say there's danger in slipping out of the exercise habit.

"It's easy to get sidetracked, because you're always going to be busy and have challenges," says Marcus Pierce, a master trainer at a Los Angeles-area 24 Hour Fitness. "No one likes to keep starting over. Today you'll wake up thinking that you'll start again on Jan. 1, and that'll drag on until February."

Trainers know that the holidays can be treacherous for clients with maxed-out schedules and ample opportunity to wine and dine. Canceling sessions is the first and most obvious sign of exercise negligence, followed by halfhearted workouts. Some trainers plan outdoor runs or hikes just as a change of pace; others substitute basketball games for the regular cardio routine.

People need to stick to their workouts, even if they scale back, trainers say, because a one-week slip can easily segue into a three-month hiatus.

"This should be a separate conversation aside from the regular session," says Gregory Florez , chief executive of health and fitness coaching and training companies First Fitness Inc. and FitAdvisor, both based in Salt Lake City. "You should set some realistic parameters and expectations. ... 'Here are the potential land mines and how to deal with them.' "

That's helped Mia Sable, who's been working out with trainer Nina Moore three times a week for about a year at the Sports Club/LA . "The holidays are particularly tricky," says the Los Angeles singer-songwriter, who will be spending part of the holidays with her family in Charlotte, N.C. "You don't want to pass up Grandma's special whatever, and any time you're not at home there are definitely challenges. It's great to have a trainer who can set up a routine for you and show you what to do while you're away."

Moore gives Sable marching orders the minute a holiday schedule is set. Staying in unfamiliar locations away from a gym requires detailed instructions on alternate workouts using body weight, resistance bands and, if possible, the outdoors.

Moore also takes a client's measurements just before the holiday onslaught, and then afterward, making it impossible for even the most convincing fibber not to get caught. That helps keep Sable on the straight and narrow: "It's knowing there will be accountability," she says, "that it's going to be noticed if I haven't kept it off. And then I'm just going to have to work harder later, and that's going to put me back months into the new year. Why do the same thing over and over every year?"

Tough love keeps Mike Ryan's clients motivated. The trainer with Gold's Gym Fitness Institute says, "When I hear 'I can't make it because ...,' I know there has to be a total intervention. I know where you live. Don't make me come to your house."

He counters excuses with solutions: No gym? Take a walk. "Even if you're back East and it's chilly, bundle up," he says. "The body has to heat up, so you're going to be burning more calories. People will look for any excuse. But we are not grizzly bears. We do not hibernate."

Cell phones and the Internet have made it simple for trainers to check in with out-of-town clients. But there's a fine line between motivation and nagging, which can backfire. It's all about balance this time of year, Florez says. Trainers need to recognize that indulgences will happen, he says, but they shouldn't be met with flogging.

"Throw the scale out," he says. "It will only serve to create anxiety. This should not be about stress; it should be about fitting things in when you can and toeing the line as much as possible, knowing that four weeks from now you'll get yourself back on track and be fine."