Worried About Holiday Weight Gain? Do These 2 Things and Have Better Holiday Season

The holidays are upon us, and if you scroll through your health and fitness feeds, you’ll probably come across articles and post that have to do with how to manage fitness goals through this ‘special’ time of year.

The idea being, during these later seasons, you will encounter unique challenges due to all of the festivities, such as:

  1. Delicious food
  2. Drinking
  3. Social engagements
  4. Spending time/dealing with family

(Number four might lead to number two for many of us)

But, in my opinion, it’s really a matter of perspective.

So today, I wanted to challenge some of the commonly held beliefs surrounding the holidays and see if I can’t help you think about this time of year differently, and in doing so, help you approach it with less angst and worry.

Challenge One:  You will gain a TON of weight

This is probably the most blatant and obvious outcome many of you are trying to avoid, but as it turns out, this myth turned urban legend is not as extreme as you might think.

In fact, a study conducted in 2000, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the amount of weight gained over the holiday season was just about ONE POUND (I’ll take that trade any day for some of my mom’s stuffing and ambrosia fruit salad!).

The study followed 195 men and women and had them measure their weight in regular intervals over the course of a year.  And while a nominal amount did gain 5 lbs or more (less than 10%), the VAST majority of people reported a gain of 1.5 lbs or less.

It should be mentioned that although the result is not as drastic as we might have expected (not the 5 to 10 lbs as what is the commonly held belief), it can STILL be significant over the span of years because the study also concluded that the participants that gained weight over the holiday season maintained the additional pound or more over the course of the following year.

What this tells us is that if we don’t employ at least SOME effort to correct for the increase in weight. Soon, 1 lb can turn into 10 lbs over the course of a decade.

But don’t let fear campaigns and weight loss propaganda fool you.  This phenomenon is not as impactful as they might want you to believe, and it certainly isn’t a cause for the kind of anxiety-ridden, deprivation filled, overly restrictive behavior associated with eating during the holidays.

You will see the holidays aren’t much different than many of the challenges we deal with in our “normal” lives, and viewed within this context, you are probably more prepared than you think.

Challenge Two:  The Holidays Produce Uniquely Challenging Situations

How many parties have you been to? Family Gatherings? Birthdays? Weddings?

If you’re like me, then you have probably been to quite a few.

And just like the holidays, you probably had to navigate different relationships around an abundance of food and drink, all while trying to keep your shit together; and that’s not to mention the internal struggle you feel with whether to hit the dessert table or not.

Seen in this light, holidays aren’t much different than the numerous occasions we find ourselves attending from month to month, or year to year.

I guess what I am trying to say is, you have had some practice… So, have a little faith.

But to help you navigate these waters a little better here are a couple of tips to help you enjoy the holidays while maintaining some of the habits that keep you healthy.

Build a Mental Model

Mental models are basically stories we tell ourselves about how the world will unfold.  It can be seen as a visualization process.

We are constantly trying to predict the future.  We look at our days by scrolling through our calendars, all while creating a picture of how we think the day will play itself out.

We do this almost automatically and for a good reason.  If we can develop a detailed mental model of our days, we can better prepare as well as notice experiences that fall out of the norm.

For example, if I told you I walked into a restaurant and then asked you to describe what happens next, you might shout out things like:

  • You see a hostess
  • You get seated at a table
  • A waiter/waitress takes your order
  • You leave a tip

Then if I asked you to be more specific, you might ask for more information so you can construct a better mental model.

Let’s say I said I walk into a 24-hour diner at 1:30 AM.

If you’re familiar with what a diner looks like around the time bars and nightclubs close, you might envision things like loud crowds, people passed out on tables, annoyed waitresses, people in a drunken stupor, etc.

And if you have been privy to this scene numerous times, your mental model(s) are probably more robust and detailed.

Therefore, if you found yourself in a 24-hour diner at 2:00 AM, you might be more cautious because people can be unpredictable when inebriated.  You may also be even more polite than usual to the waitress because you know she is ALREADY having a hard time, etc.

Mental Models help us prepare for situations based on theoretical outcomes.  

They allow us to see situations from multiple perspectives (depending on our experiences), and in doing so allow us to adjust our behavior and actions to be less reactive. Instead, we are able to respond in a savvier manner.

Think of a grandmaster chess player who is able to visualize the multiple ways her opponent might try to defeat her.  She sees her opponent’s moves, 6 or 7 moves in advance due to the detailed mental models she has created through the hundreds of games she has played.

So when thinking about the experiences you will have during the holidays, construct mental models of how you think they could possibly play out.

  • Who’s going to be there?
  • Who are the people that would insist that you eat more?
  • How will you respond to them in a productive way?
  • Can you ask for support before you get there?
  • What are the foods that YOU KNOW you tend to overdo it on?
  • What are some useful strategies to employ?

This way you can better prepare for the experience in a way that you feel comfortable with.  

Remember, you can still enjoy all the ‘tasty eats’ without overdoing it.  You can still have a drink or two without getting shit-faced.

These are outcomes that can be attained with a little planning, preparation, and possibly a little support.

And you won’t have to compromise all the work you have done to cultivate a healthier lifestyle.

Don’t Ditch the Activity

This should go without saying…

Activity should stay in the routine.

Note that I said ACTIVITY.  It doesn’t have to be exercise.

I divide activity into two categories:  opportunities to move and planned activity

Opportunities to move (OTM) is a term I picked up from author Michelle Segar, in her book No Sweat.  

OTMs are instances that we can find in our day to “sneak in activity.”  Actions like

  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Walking to destinations within walking distance
  • Taking public transportation
  • Making phone calls when walking
  • Standing at the desk
  • Fidgeting
  • Housework or yard work

This is what I refer to as a baseline habit with clients.  

We can’t ALWAYS find time to schedule in training or workouts, but we can always keep a mind toward finding opportunities to move.  

image courtesy of Mike Fojtasek

Finding these small opportunities in our days to move makes a big difference.

If you talk to fitness folks, health freaks, or refer to the literature, the term used for this type of activity is N.E.A.T. or N.E.P.A.- which stands for Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or Non Exercise Physical Activity, and it can have a huge impact on managing and/or getting to the weight you feel comfortable at.

According to the author of Move a Little, Lose a Lot, Dr. Jim Levine says it’s one of the main differences between lean and obese individuals.  

In a study he conducted with his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, they outfitted 10 obese participants and 10 lean ones with special undergarments that tracked movement every half second, and they found out that lean individuals spend a lot of time performing “low-grade activity” such as fidgeting, which equated to a caloric burn of 350 calories per day on average.

350 calories For FIDGETING!?

You might want to think again about all those stress relief squeeze toys, those balls you can spin in the palm of your hand, or gadgets like these:

Take away: simple tasks that require SOME kind of movement add up. So keep a mind toward moving.

As far as planned activity goes, these are activities where you had to move some things around to fit them into your schedule, but they don’t have to be exercise in the way that many of us might imagine (i.e. working out in a gym with weights and stuff).

These planned activities can be walk and talk with friends, rock climbing, family bike rides, dog jogs (jogging with your dog), or workouts.

The main point being, when it comes to holidays and, really, just life in general, we are going to have to be creative with how we fit movement into our busy lives.  Remember, we are fighting a culture of convenience and movement is becoming less and less of a necessity, so you are going to have to make it a priority.

Ultimately, these ideas are meant to help you enjoy the holidays more.  I want you to enjoy the time you spend with your loved ones.  I want you to enjoy some of your favorite foods that might only come around during the holiday season, but I am also familiar with the challenges we deal with and the internal struggles many of us feel.

In the end, the holidays are meant to bring us together.  And if you really think about your health and why being “healthy” is even important, and I am sure for many of us, it comes down to being able to spend more time with the people we love.  So, with all this talk about health, fitness, and the likes, don’t lose sight of what all of this is even for.  In other words, don’t be so caught up with whether to eat that pecan pie or not, that you forget why you’re there in the first place.