We're becoming a nation that gallops before it gobbles.
From the record number of runners and walkers in downtown Minneapolis Thursday morning for the Life Time Fitness Turkey Day 5K to the crowded parking lot and busy treadmills at the Southdale YMCA in Edina, Minnesotans seemed to be in training for their biggest eating day of the year.
And if they weren't working out before the meal, they'll be dancing and lifting off those calories at special post-Thanksgiving programs at gyms Friday
"There's a growing awareness of how many calories we take in on Thanksgiving," said Cindra Kamphoff, a sports psychologist at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She said that a typical Thanksgiving meal weighs in at 1,600 calories, motivating many exercisers to get busy. "They feel less guilty."
Thanksgiving also marks the start of the annual holiday calorie loading binge. "They're going to be eating quite a bit of food not just that day but also over the next six weeks," said runner and biker Nathan Campeau of Minneapolis. "People want to get off on the right foot for that."
That's a big part of why Ross Dunlap of St. Francis got himself downtown to the starting line at 8 a.m. on a holiday when he could otherwise sleep in.
"The big turkey meal -- you want to preburn some of those calories," he said. "Plus, it gives you something to talk about around the table."
The 24-year-old Life Time race drew a record 16,500 participants -- more than the company's races in four other major cities combined. One running calendar lists 18 Thanksgiving Day runs in Minnesota alone -- and that's just the ones registering people. The Southdale Y's informal family run-walk drew 120 people.
According to USA Today, the number of finishers in Thanksgiving turkey trots jumped 77 percent in just three years, reaching 676,000 participants in 2011, making our biggest eating holiday also our busiest race day of the year. And it's not just running. Jason Stella, who trains trainers for Life Time, has seen the line snake out the door at its Chanhassen facility for a popular group exercise class held early on Thanksgiving morning.
The surge in Thanksgiving exercise is no surprise to Henry Praska of Brainerd, Minn., who coordinates a four-year-old 5K run-walk in nearby Baxter. "It's been increasing every year by about 20 percent," he said. With mild weather, he expected more than 400 at the starting line this year.
The Life Time run is dominated by groups of friends and family. "You can bring your grandma, and you can walk," race spokeswoman K.J. Greenwood said.
That makes it a social event, agreed Lars Fricke and Brooke Feder of Savage. They pushed a jogging stroller carrying well-swaddled daughter Hazel, 6 months old. "She loves being outside," Fricke said.
For Mary Lou Lundberg, running downtown before the turkey gets carved is a family tradition that helps keep alive the memory of her late sister, Lenore Ohnstad, who died 10 years ago this month. "She always did Thanksgiving," Lundberg said, her eyes tearing. "It's one way I can connect with my nephew and my brother-in-law."
Not everyone gets to the gym on the holiday, but many crowd in later. "This weekend is usually one of our busiest during the year," Southdale Y Director Greg Hanks said. That's why the Y scheduled two marathon events at Southdale for Friday. Group cyclists can participate in all or part of a four-hour spin-cycling workout that rolls out at 7 a.m., but space in the $10 per hour fundraiser is limited. An alternative is a two-hour dance party at 9 a.m. that will cycle through Zumba, cardio hip-hop and belly dancing.
Fitness organizations like the Y use the upsurge in interest in holiday weight control to recruit members. The 21 metro-area YMCAs will have open houses for prospective members with discounts, and members often use that opportunity to bring their visiting relatives for a workout, according to Bette Fenton, marketing vice president for YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.
Some workouts are better than others at keeping off the extra pounds, according to Stella. He advises exercising as close to meal time as practical to maximize the carryover effects and concentrating on high-intensity routines with resistance that use large muscle groups.
But don't think that lap around the track will balance out the second lap around the buffet line.
Kamphoff, the women's champion at September's Omaha Marathon, reminds people that those 1,600 calories take even a champion runner hours of exercise to burn off.
But as Greenwood put it, "If you start your day active, you don't feel as guilty later on when you're sitting around."
Steve Brandt 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib