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Best gift to yourself is fitness

Along with the lights, the inflatable snow globes, the "Santa, Please Stop Here" signs on the lawns, here's another indicator that the holidays are upon us: The gyms are empty.

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's is one of the slowest of the year for the fitness industry. Crowds thin out at health clubs. Classes are often half full. Clients cancel their personal training sessions.

"There's definitely a huge dip during the holidays," says Peter Lombardi, a Babylon-based personal trainer and former gym manager. "I have clients who just disappear."

The reason, he believes, is a cascade of bad decisions that starts on the fourth Thursday in November and continues unabated through New Year's Day.

"Thanksgiving is when people start going downhill," Lombardi said. "They eat so much, eat poorly and start feeling bad. They get into a downward spiral that lasts into the New Year."

Here are some ways to avoid falling off the fitness wagon during the holidays.

THINK SMALL Be realistic. This probably isn't the time of year to try to lose 10 pounds, bench press your maximum weight, or log your longest run on the treadmill. "The goal this time of year should be consistency," says Jose L. Lopez of Mineola, president of Long Island Tri Coach. "So maybe it's just a 15-minute walk, four times a week."

START A NEW TRADITION The holidays are all about tradition, so why not one that involves exercise? There are a number of holiday-themed running events coming up in the next two weeks; one of the most popular is this Saturday's Ho Ho Ho Holiday Run in Bethpage. Santa hats and reindeer antlers abound at this 5k (3.1-mile) event, which attracts families who jog or walk together and includes a pre-race costume parade. (Visit glirc.org for more information.)

Of course, your new tradition doesn't have to be an organized event. "Take a walk around the neighborhood with the family to look at people's decorations," suggests Maria DiCroce, a personal trainer and youth fitness director at Sky Athletic Club in Rockville Centre. "Take a spin class with your friends on Christmas Eve morning."

SHIFT GEARS Lopez's challenge is to keep athletes who are involved in a summer sport -- triathlon -- motivated in cold, dark December. One way he does this is by getting them to try new stuff. He leads by example. "I'll run trails, I'll go mountain biking, I'll get in the weight room a little more," he says. "This the time of year to change things up."

It could also involve a reshuffle of something you already do: A new weight routine, for example; or switching to the treadmill instead of the elliptical for your cardio, for a change.

TAKE A DEEP BREATH Some deep breathing and gentle stretching can help beat holiday stress. Lombardi will often have his clients do tai chi movements this time of year, just to help ease the tension. A mind/body class at the local gym or yoga studio -- even if you just pay a one-time walk-in fee -- might be one of the nicest presents you could give yourself this season.

For more seasons fitness tips, see DiCroce's blog: mariadicroce.com/holiday-survival.

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