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Public healthDec 19, 2022

Researchers using Advent calendar approach to encourage physical activity were pleased with results

A bid to prompt people to become more physically active by delivering messages via an imaginative Christmas-style advent calendar produced promising results, according to a paper appearing in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

It was written a Gregory Biddle and a team based at the Centre for Lifestyle Medicine and Behaviour (CLiMB) at Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences.

Volunteers who joined the ‘Active Advent’ study in the run-up to last year’s Christmas break were encouraged to take part in activities such as ‘abdominal snowman’ sit-ups and a ‘Christmas deliveries’ walk.

The Christmas period is a high-risk period for physical inactivity, with evidence suggesting that people gain from 0.4-0.9 kg.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
People gain from 0.4-0.9 kg in weight over the Christmas holiday time, evidence suggests


Rocking around the Christmas tree

Members of the CLiMB team recruited 107 inactive adults (who did not reach the UK guidelines for physical activity) from social media platforms, workplaces, and community groups from 11-30 November 2021. Most participants (88 per cent) were women of white ethnicity, and more than half (56 per cent) were overweight or obese. The average age of those who took part was 46.

After collecting baseline data, participants were randomly assigned to either the intervention group (71) or control group (36). Intervention participants received a daily email during Advent (1-24 December 2021) containing a Christmas-themed physical activity idea to be completed that day. Examples included ‘Star’ jumps, ‘Dasher the reindeer’ sprints, ‘10 lords-a-leaping’ rope skips, ‘Lay the table’ planks and ‘Rocking around the Christmas tree’ Christmas song dances.

Each idea was offered to participants at three levels of intensity, which were 

  • Easy Elf (low intensity)
  • Moderate Mrs Claus (moderate intensity)
  • Strenuous Santa (high intensity)

Those in the control group received a leaflet about healthy living on 1 December. All participants used an online questionnaire to report how many minutes they spent doing moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity per week and how many days they performed muscle-strengthening exercises per week.

Around half of participants in both groups were asked to wear an accelerometer (a gadget that tracks the volume and intensity of physical activity) on their wrist 24 hours a day for the duration of the study. Intervention participants were also asked to rate their enjoyment of the activity ideas and recount which activity at which intensity they completed each day.

The public were interested to engage in a Christmas themed physical activity intervention, which also reduced sedentary time and showed promise for increasing participation in physical activity [Gregory Biddle et al]

Study was 'safe and inexpensive'

As this was a brief intervention that generated relatively small changes in behaviour and being a pilot study, the researchers were unable to report on the intervention's effectiveness. However, it was was safe, inexpensive, and designed to be scaled up easily. The evidence suggests it could potentially change health behaviours in the longer term.

On average, the groups reported similar minutes of participation in moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity in weeks one and two. At week three, the intervention group reported participating in about 21 more minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity per week and just over half a day more muscle-strengthening exercises per week than the control group.  

Accelerometer data showed that the intervention group participated in similar, although marginally more, minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity (15 minutes), light intensity physical activity (22 minutes), and total physical activity (37 minutes), than the control group over the intervention period. 

On average, people in the intervention group also spent fewer (59 minutes) sedentary per day during the intervention than did people in the control group.

Overall, 42 (70 per cent) of 60 participants in the intervention group reported that they liked the intervention and 41 (69 per cent) of 59 reported that they completed the Active Advent intervention ideas each day. Of these, 18 (30 per cent) completed Easy Elf, 12 (21 per cent) completed Moderate Mrs Claus, and 11 (18 per cent) completed Strenuous Santa. 


While no safety concerns emerged, the study was not designed to evaluate this definitively.

Dr Biddle and his colleagues note. 'The public were interested to engage in a Christmas themed physical activity intervention, which also reduced sedentary time and showed promise for increasing participation in physical activity. 

‘Enjoyment of, and adherence to the intervention shows that the public would welcome public health campaigns to help them become more physically active and less sedentary during the holiday season,’ they conclude.

The see the full version of the paper, titled A Christmas themed physical activity intervention to increase participation in physical activity during Advent: pilot randomised controlled trial doi: 10.1136/ bmj-2022-072807, visit: https://www.bmj.com/content/379/bmj-2022-072807 

Author: Ian A McMillan
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