Maintaining the number on the scale isn’t all that’s at stake.
Everyone knows diet and exercise are the most basic recommendations for keeping weight in check. Over the holidays, it can be tempting to let that slide. With all that delicious food sitting around, the time to just lounge around watching a good football game or holiday movie and the cold weather outside, it's easy to fall into a sedentary routine. But failing to keep up with workouts can be costly on one's health.
“It is well documented the fall holiday season is associated with weight gain, and the excess weight is primarily from fat,” said Joaquin Gonzales, an assistant professor of exercise physiology in the Department of Kinesiology & Sport Management at Texas Tech University. “However, what most people don't know is that a person's current weight status strongly predicts holiday weight gain. On average, people with a normal weight status – that is, a body mass index less than 25 kg/m2 – are reported to gain about one pound over the holidays, but this number can be four pounds or higher for people who are considered overweight or obese.
“The cause of holiday weight gain may vary from person to person, but due to the extra activities and stress that come with the holidays such as shopping, parties and family gatherings, it is speculated people get out of their normal dietary and physical activity routines, which ultimately leads to excess food intake and weight gain.”
An exercise routine can help to fight this trend, but only if it's maintained.
“I think people associate holidays with food,” said Dana Wagnon, an undergraduate adviser in Kinesiology & Sport Management who teaches fitness boot camp classes at D1 Fitness. “If they don't have a fitness lifestyle plan they really aren't aware of how calories from food, liquor and sweets can add up. A lack of exercise program can cause anywhere from a seven- to 12-pound weight gain. I think people also get busy and tend to cut their exercise routines. Have you ever been into a gym in December? It's very empty.”
While a balance between diet and exercise are necessary to maintain a healthy weight, Gonzales said the importance of daily physical activity is more than just that.
“Daily physical activity is also essential in determining how and what type of fuel – fat, carbohydrates, protein – is used by the body,” he said. “For instance, usual-pace walking is great for burning fat due to the type of muscle recruited for light exercise. In contrast, lifting a heavy weight recruits a type of muscle that prefers using carbohydrates for fuel. So it's not surprising to learn a sedentary lifestyle is not only a risk factor for obesity, but also of diseases like diabetes where people have difficulty controlling blood levels of glucose, which is a carbohydrate.”
Another risk of a sedentary lifestyle is cardiovascular disease.
“When you don't meet energy expenditures equivalent to moderate intensity physical activity, you will gain weight,” Wagnon said. “Now with social media and phone use I'm seeing more children adapting to a sedentary lifestyle as well.”
The key to staying healthy and active, Gonzales said, is to stimulate muscles frequently.
“Body tissue and organs will burn fats and carbohydrates at higher rates if we perform more spontaneous, intermittent daily physical activity as opposed to a single bout of exercise each day,” Gonzales said. “Think of it this way: we eat multiple times a day, so why not be active multiple times a day, too? An easy form of exercise is walking at a brisk pace. An increase of 2,000 steps per day in adults with low physical activity levels is associated with lower body fat. A goal for a healthier holiday season is 7,500-plus steps per day.”
To get in those needed steps, Wagnon suggests taking a brisk walk around the block or parking farther away at stores.
Gonzales and Wagnon have a few recommendations for anyone looking to maintain or improve his or her health this holiday season:
- Maintain normalcy.
It is tempting to skip the gym or snack more when away from work during the holiday, but these vices often are the root cause of holiday weight gain.
- Don't be too strict.
In a study from the National Weight Control Registry of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off, those who were most strict in maintaining their normal dietary and exercise routine gained more weight during the holiday season.
- Get up and walk every half hour.
In a 2015 study, walking for two minutes every half hour lowered blood glucose more than just sitting or standing after consuming a large amount of carbohydrates. It's thought the high frequency of exercise stimulated more muscle use of glucose.
- Make it a social event or challenge.
Of the few studies that have examined strategies to prevent holiday weight gain, there is evidence that group education on the importance of diet and exercise with weekly eating and physical activity goals is effective at preventing a change of body weight over the holidays.
- Think smaller portions with food.
Plan your high-calorie days with more physical activity to offset them, eat before attending a holiday party to reduce social eating and don't leave candy dishes around as temptation.
- Drink lots of water, avoid sugary drinks and stick to mixed alcoholic drinks with
water and lemon.
December is a dry time of year and the symptoms of dehydration mimic the symptoms of hunger.
- Make staying active fun.
Get involved in charities or take children on a neighborhood walk with flashlights to view the holiday lights.
The most important thing to remember is gaining a few pounds during the holidays can have bigger ramifications down the line.
“Research shows holiday weight gain is often not lost after the holiday season has ended. Thus, the holiday could set the stage for a new year with a heavier body weight,” Gonzales said. “So, it is worth people's consideration to monitor food intake, be conservative in portion amount and frequency of food consumption during festivities, and accompany the holiday break with intermittent daily physical activity in order to prevent holiday weight gain.”