By Michelle Konstantinovsky & Katie Lewin
Has your holiday to-do list got you all hunkered down? You’re in good company. Only 20% of American adults meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) weekly exercise recommendations (two and a half hours of moderate-intensity cardio, like brisk walking, and two days of strength training). And that’s a year-round estimate! Add travel, parties, treats and stress to the mixing bowl and you’ve got the perfect recipe for holiday weight gain. (Ho, ho, oh no!) Luckily, there are simple ways to stave off those pesky pounds, while still loading up on holiday cheer.
Whether you’re rushing from store to store or walking from a parking spot that feels like it’s located in Siberia, no amount of exercise is insignificant, says Robert Sallis, MD, co-director of sports medicine at Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California. “It's become increasingly clear that even breaking exercise into smaller bites is the same as doing a sustained amount. Several studies show that doing three 10-minute jogs is the same as doing one 30-minute, sustained jog."
When you're doing your shopping, purposely park in the furthest spot and walk, Sallis recommends. "You won't get your car dinged, and you won't get into any fights over a spot. That's a 10-minute walk right there. Go to three stores, and there: you've done your exercise for the day." Bonus points for shopping on your lunch break — a 15-minute walk can cut snacking on chocolate at work in half, according to a University of Exeter study. Short breaks from your desk helps to keep your mind off snacking and a brisk stroll curbs stress better than sweets can. (Now that’s what we call efficient holiday shopping!)
Even chores around the house can help to whittle your waistline — as long as they're done with a certain level of intensity. "Studies have shown that it doesn't matter if it's yard work or housework, as long as it's done with purpose," Sallis says. So lace up your cross-trainers and trim that tree like you mean it!
Being surrounded by holiday treats is inevitable. No need to panic or deprive yourself — you can have your candy cane and sip your eggnog too.
"Have a taste of your favorite treats, but don't go crazy,” says Jennifer Warnshuis, a certified personal trainer in the San Francisco Bay Area. To avoid binging at the party, have a healthy meal and drink a good amount of water beforehand so you’re not famished upon arrival. At the food table, pick a few favorites enjoy in moderation — you only need a taste to satisfy your craving. A Cornell Food and Brand Lab study found that the amount of junk food people eat to satisfy their cravings is directly correlated with how big their portion sizes are. The participants who were given larger servings ate 77% more food, but didn’t feel more satisfied than those given smaller ones. Just a bit will do the trick!
If you do fall down the holiday treat rabbit hole, don’t be discouraged — no one’s perfect! Just burn off those extra calories by incorporating a little more exercise into your daily routine, like taking the stairs on your way work or enjoying a brisk walk after dinner. And remember, tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity to start afresh.
To remain on the right track for staying healthy (even when tempting treats are obscuring your focus), be sure to get enough shut-eye. Fatigue makes you much more likely to reach for foods high in fat and sugar (the main ingredients in many seasonal favorites) than whole grains and leafy vegetables, reports a University of California, Berkeley study that compared its participants’ cravings after a full night’s rest and a session of sleeplessness.
In the study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the participants’ brain each night. After the sleepless night, they found impaired activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for decision making, and increased activity in the parts of the brain that respond to rewards.
High-calorie food cravings combined with altered decision-making may be your worst the enemy in the fight to stay trim — so take that whole long winter’s nap thing seriously! The holidays are hectic but it’s important to set aside ample time (about seven to nine hours a night for adults) to snooze away snack attacks.
Don’t lose heart if your holiday destination is miles from the nearest gym. “There are plenty of effective workouts you can do at home with little or even no equipment," says Warnshuis.
If you’re working out solo, Warnshuis recommends this energy-revving at-home routine to her clients: Perform a series of exercises that include jumping rope, push-ups, sit-ups, squats and lunges, back-to-back with no rest in between. If you're a beginner, perform each exercise for 30 seconds, and work your way up to 60 seconds. Rest after each circuit for 90 seconds. Repeat the entire circuit two to three times.
If you’re feeling more gregarious than grinchy (after all, holidays are a time for family!), challenge the whole family to a round of fitness video games like Dance Dance Revolution or the Wii Sports series. Better yet, head outdoors for a game of football or enjoy the winter scenery on a family hike.
Remember the good old days, when the holidays were a time of peace, reflection and relaxation? Yeah, neither do we. Not only can holiday stress put a serious damper on what’s supposed to be a happy occasion, but it also throws a wrench in weight loss — or even maintenance.
Before you cry, “bah humbug,” though, check out these glad tidings. According to a 2011 study conducted by University of California, San Francisco, utilizing simple mindful eating and stress-reduction techniques can help prevent weight gain. In the study, participants were instructed to identify their feelings each time they reached for a treat. Learning about the connection between their stress level and appetite, combined with daily meditation and mindfulness exercises, gave them a sense of self-awareness that was as empowering as it was effective.
Women in the study who experienced the greatest reduction in stress tended to have a greater loss of deep abdominal fat (the kind associated with heart disease and diabetes). You can apply this strategy by taking a moment to evaluate your emotions before you binge on whatever your holiday poison is (looking at you, gingerbread cookies!). The point being: Think before you bite — you may make a wiser decision.
If all else fails, keep a little perspective. Sure, the holidays can be stressful, but at least you’re not responsible for flying around the world for 24 hours straight through inclement weather in a questionably engineered, deer-powered sleigh. It could be worse!
Updated December 8, 2014.
(Original publish date December 9, 2010.)
Michelle Konstantinovsky is a freelance writer and San Francisco native who has written for SPIN.com, SheKnows.com, and 7x7 Magazine.
Katie Lewin is a Bay Area-based health and lifestyle writer.