In calorie terms, a hefty Christmas lunch isn’t a meal you can burn off with a brisk 30-minute walk around the block afterwards.

As we noted last Christmas, a traditional Christmas meal in the UK with all the trimmings can pack as many as 3,289 calories.

This year, we thought it might be interesting to put this considerable number into perspective, by assessing how long the average person would have to undertake 19 different physical exercises for, in order to theoretically burn off this amount.

Using the MET value formula, we determined that the level of activity required to burn off 3,289 calories is equivalent to:

  • walking for over 40 miles
  • cycling for 76 miles
  • performing 4,224 press-ups
  • vacuuming 85 standard-sized living rooms
  • or playing the drums for 148 songs.

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If Christmas is a time for indulgence, then New Year is undoubtedly a time for restoring the balance. Following the excesses of December, January tends to be a lean month for many of us in more ways than one; but particularly so from a lifestyle perspective.

Strict healthy eating regimens, going alcohol-free, and hitting the treadmill are all familiar New Year measures we’ll adopt to rectify the exuberances of the previous month, and help us get back in shape.

For many in December then, knowing that a month of relative austerity is just around the corner, the temptation might be to throw caution to the wind, on the proviso that whatever we do in the run-up to and over the Christmas period we can easily fix afterwards.

However, there are various degrees to which one can throw caution to the wind. Occasional indulging and over-indulging are two different things, and it’s worth keeping this in mind during the festive period; the more relaxed your diet and activity habits are in December, the more work you’ll have to do come January.

It’s perhaps advisable then not to approach Christmas with an attitude of outright abandon when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. Enjoying a treat at Christmas and eating a touch more than you might normally is fine; but not getting carried away with portion sizes so much that it becomes a habit, and remaining physically active to some degree over the festive period, can help to make the sobering return to normality in January less of a shock.

Christmas dinner calories and reference intakes

One year ago, we conducted a study of different Christmas lunch traditions from across Europe. In it, we found that the UK had the most calorific traditional Christmas dinner on the continent, packing up to a whopping 3,289 calories.

This number is over one and a half times the reference intake for an adult woman (2,000) and nearly one and one-third that of a man’s reference intake (2,500).

To provide some perspective, you might expect to find between 400-800 calories in a regular day-of-the-week evening meal. Even the most calorific item featured in our breakfast study a few months ago, at 1,531 calories, is modest in comparison.

What does 3,289 calories equate to in exercise?

This year, we thought it might be intriguing to look at how this amount of calories translates into physical activity.

As with our study of Olympic events earlier this year, we used the The 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities: A Second Update of Codes and MET Values, to calculate the number of calories burned per minute by each exercise.

(Obviously these figures are purely theoretical. By no means are we suggesting that you go out and attempt to undertake these activities continuously for the durations specified yourself. Preparation for running or cycling long distances, such as those specified above for instance, often takes months, or even years of physical conditioning; while some of the other exercises specified, such as galloping on horseback for 160.8 miles continuously, or boxing for 120 rounds straight, we wouldn’t advise anyone to attempt under any circumstances, for obvious reasons.)

For someone weighing the average UK weight of 11 stone, 3,289 calories is equivalent to:

  • Walking for 40.3 miles, based on a walking speed of 3 miles per hour. That’s approximately the same distance between Manchester and Leeds, or between Swansea and Cardiff;
  • Run for 28.7 miles, at a speed of 6 miles per hour. That’s longer than a marathon and roughly the same as the distance between Nottingham and Chesterfield;
  • Swim for 310 lengths in an Olympic-sized 50 metre swimming pool (based on a speed of 50 yards per minute);
  • Cycle for 76.4 miles, the distance between Dundee and Glasgow, at a speed of 13 miles per hour;
  • Dance for 113 5-minute songs. That’s Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall from start to finish 13 times over;
  • Perform 77 tracks worth of dance aerobics;
  • Mow 18 lawns, walking with a power mower (based on half an hour per lawn);
  • Play 3.1 90-minute football matches (to a competitive level of effort);
  • Perform 4,224 press-ups (at a rate of 12 per minute);
  • Perform 8,892 sit-ups (at a rate of 12 per minute);
  • Box for 120 3-minute rounds (at a sparring level of effort);
  • Play 2.6 5-set tennis matches;
  • Play 5.5 rugby matches;
  • Jump rope 27,840 times (at a speed of two jumps per second);
  • Vacuum clean 85.4 living rooms (based on 10 minutes per living room);
  • Drum for 148 5-minute songs;
  • Gallop on horseback for 160.8 miles (at 25 miles per hour), which is about the same as the distance between Belfast and Dublin;
  • Ski for 23.5 miles (based on a skiing speed of 4.5 miles per hour);
  • Or roller-skate for 56.3 miles (based on a skating speed of 9 miles per hour).

Getting back in shape

Thankfully these activities are not compulsory measures that someone would have to undertake in order to burn off their Christmas dinner. Fortunately for us and our Christmas plates, we’re burning calories all the time as we go about our everyday activities; however, the above does serve as a useful indication of the kind of work the body has to do in order to shift a particularly heavy meal.

When getting back in shape after a season of festive partying, gradually easing oneself back into a fitness regime is always the most productive and sustainable approach to take.

For those who have taken a break of a few weeks or longer, it’s typically a good idea to start with the minimum activity guidelines as recommended by the NHS (150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise, such as jogging or swimming, with strength exercises on two or more days) and gradually increase your levels of intensity the more your conditioning improves.