IT'S THE FESTIVE holidays - lots of parties with lots of food and drink - so who can find the time for exercise? Group fitness instructor Hung Mei-lei acknowledges that as the days fill with holiday preparations and celebrations, it's tempting to ditch the workouts. However, she says, we must still stay active during the so-called silly season. Personal trainer Louise Porter agrees. 'Exercise increases energy levels, reduces stress and improves quality of sleep, all of which will help us to stay sane at this crazy time of year. Maintaining a workout programme will also ensure you don't put on too much weight.' Staying fit and trim at any time of the year requires commitment, and the holidays mean extra planning and determination. 'Being short on time doesn't mean you have to be short on fitness. Your usual exercise patterns can be replicated in your own home to ensure you don't undo all the hard work of the previous months,' says Hung. Porter says the average person needs to burn off 3,500 calories to lose 1/2kg in weight. 'But at this time of year, weight loss goals are unrealistic. Much better to tell yourself you will maintain an active lifestyle and not put on any weight despite the extra calorie intake.' This, she says, is relatively easy to achieve with a little planning. 'Most doctors recommend about 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity most, if not every, day of the week. At this time of year, if you can't manage the 30 minutes in one block, it can be split throughout the day and can include things like taking the stairs to the office instead of the lift or escalator, or walking to a meeting instead of taking a taxi,' says Hung. 'Go shopping half an hour earlier than scheduled and power-walk the mall before you begin shopping. Split your lunch break in two: one for eating, the other half for exercise. If you have to shorten your workout time, then increase the intensity,' she says. Porter says getting into the mindset that something is better than nothing helps. 'Just because you've skipped a couple of days, doesn't mean you should do nothing for the rest of the holiday. It's a fact that fitness levels go down and weight levels go up quicker than Santa's sleigh.' For cardiovascular exercise, a skipping rope is hard to beat, she says. Ten minutes a day is all you need, beginning with a five-minute warm-up of walking, jogging or knee lifts. Follow this with light stretches of the major muscle groups. Don't stretch to the point of pain or bounce. Then try one set of eight to 12 repetitions of the following if you're a beginner. Increase the sets and/or repetitions depending on your fitness. Squats: Stand with your feet a little more than hip-width apart, with toes pointed slightly outwards. 'Sit down' as if on a chair, keeping your back straight, chest up and abdominals braced. Come to a standing position by really 'pushing' down through the whole foot. Lunges: Put your right foot a 'giant's step' away from the left. Bend your right knee ensuring it remains over the ankle and doesn't travel further forward during the movement. At the same time, drop the left knee until it's 2cm away from the ground. Push back up to standing, with your chest up, and abs braced throughout. Repeat on one leg before changing. Abdominal crunches: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hands are best put gently behind head with fingertips touching and the elbows just in line of sight. Imagine a rope attached from chest to ceiling and someone is pulling on the rope. Lift up a few centimetres (any further and it is momentum, not muscle doing the work). Remember to pull your navel to the spine throughout and maintain a smooth motion. Don't allow your chin to jut forward in the movement. Lower without allowing your head to touch the floor. Claire Sargeant, a Pilates instructor, also sees clients' exercise and good nutrition regimens go out the window at this time of year. 'Darker mornings and evenings make outdoors activities like running and cycling less appealing while the buffet table laden with holiday favourites looks more so,' she says. 'Gym time is often replaced with shopping and socialising.' But, she says, don't be too hard on yourself. 'Don't add to your stress levels by feeling guilty for not working out. After all it is the holidays. A little weight gain is inevitable, but maintaining some sort of exercise regime will ensure a little doesn't turn into a lot.' Sargeant says that Joseph Pilates, founder of the self-named system of exercise, believed deep breathing is essential for energy and vitality. 'We can all do with more of both at this extra busy time of year. Keeping your postural muscles activated by standing or sitting tall, gently pulling in your tummy while relaxing your shoulders and breathing long and deep will go a long way towards relaxing and energising yourself. 'There are also a number of easy movements which, if done every day, will maintain a strong core and healthy posture.' Sargeant suggests the following: Plank position: Lie on your stomach, draw yourself up on to toes and forearms. Draw your chin slightly in and lengthen your neck, slide your shoulders down away from your ears, pull your belly button up from the floor, keep pulling up, stop if you feel any strain. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Repeat. Swimming: Lie face down on the floor. Draw up your navel, just a little. Place your hands over your head on the floor, wide enough that you can keep your shoulders away from your ears. Extend opposite arm and leg along the ground with a slight lift (or 'swim' them); swap sides. Remember to focus on holding your core still and keeping hips square on the ground. If raising the arm results in the shoulder lifting, just do the leg lifts and stretch out your chest after you sit. Jennifer Cornelius began practising yoga at university to decrease stress and sharpen mental focus; she now teaches the ancient therapy. 'Buffets and champagne make it too hard to maintain your usual exercise programme over the holidays,' she says. 'Studies have shown people can pack on up to five pounds [2.2kg] of weight at this time of year. But by following some simple rules you can avoid those excess pounds.' She says to strive for eight hours of sleep a night. The less sleep you get, the more your body craves carbohydrates. 'We can quell that feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it by rewarding ourselves with a relaxation pose for 15 minutes a day.' (See sidebar) Cornelius says that, at first, it may be hard to completely let go and fully relax. 'Keep practising and it will become much easier, sweeter and more beneficial every day - even Christmas Day.'