Whether you stuffed yourself full of Thanksgiving turkey and are now in panic mode about how your waistline is going to handle all those holiday parties, or your weight survived Thanksgiving unharmed but threatens to explode as the holiday season progresses, in this article, you'll learn how holiday weight gain happens -- plus five strategies for avoiding it.
Holiday Weight Gain Reason #1: Schedule Snafus
Once the holidays arrive, your tidy, type-A, strictly scheduled world can begin to unravel with long weekends during which there is ample opportunity to sleep in and be lazy; holiday parties; heavy eating and drinking on weeknights when you'd normally behave; gyms that close or have new, strange hours; and travel that takes you to new locations where exercising can be a stressful chore.
But you can avoid these issues by planning ahead.
For example, check with your gym in advance to find out their holiday hours, and on days where it may be closed or unavailable to you, plan on taking outdoor walks or runs, or having home body weight exercise sessions. On long weekends, set exercise goals that get you moving, boosting your metabolism early, such as squeezing in 20 minutes of exercise before 9 a.m. If you're traveling, use Google maps to search for gyms near where you're staying, or pack elastic bands and running shoes, and check out my tips article How To Stay Fit While Traveling.
Holiday Weight Gain Reason #2: Stress
Shopping needs, family obligations, and changes in your daily routine can be stressful. When this stress happens, your blood pressure and heart rate can go up, your motivation to exercise can go down, and your propensity to gain weight can increase as your body produces more of the potentially fat-storing hormone cortisol.
For this reason, even during the holidays, I start every day with a short and simple series of jumping jacks, push-ups, body weight squats, and a full body stretch. Because this only takes about ten minutes, there is a very low barrier to getting it done -- and it can decrease stress enough to where I feel like getting in a bigger exercise session later in the day! This is important because exercise is one of the best ways to control stress.
Holiday Weight Gain Reason #3: Ever-Present Food
All this added stress tends to make us want to eat more, and coincidentally, the holiday season means a constant stream of cookies, pies, and drinks. Studies have shown that when these tempting treats are constantly visible, you're far more likely to eat them. Not a big surprise there.
The solution to this weight gain issue is simple: hide the treats and snacks during the holidays. Keep cookies in non-transparent containers, put pies or other desserts back into the refrigerator immediately after you're done with them, put alcohol in a closed cupboard, and avoid placing dishes of candy or chocolates out on tables and counters.
Holiday Weight Gain Reason #4: Cold Weather
While weather conditions are only an issue if you live in the northern climates, they are a relevant reason for holiday weight gain. After all, who wants to go out for a brisk morning walk or jog when you have to spend 20 minutes putting on multiple layers, gloves, a hat, and your sturdy snow boots? Even driving to the gym can be annoying when the roads are covered in snow or you spend the first half of your workout just trying to warm up.
The best solution I've found for this problem is to keep your body as warm as possible throughout the day. So when it's cold outside, never let yourself go for more than an hour without trying to squeeze in a handful of body weight squats, push-ups or jumping jacks. Just this small amount of activity can keep your body warm and ready for action when it actually is time for an exercise session. In addition, when you're driving to the gym, you can turn up the heater in the car so that your body and muscles are warm and ready to go when you arrive.
Holiday Weight Gain Reason #5: Peer Pressure
Let's face it, holiday weight gain is an "accepted" societal norm. "Santa belly," "festively plump," and "food coma" are terms that are freely thrown around during this time of year, and if all your friends accept something as normal, it's probably not going to bother you.
For this reason, it's easy to feel less guilty about overindulging, or combing gluttony with laziness during the holidays. But wouldn't it be much better if you arrived at January 1 prepared for a New Year's resolution other than "weight loss"? What if you were as trim and fit as you wanted to be, and could instead set a goal of learning a new musical instrument, making more money, or spending extra time with family?
This season, consider not succumbing to peer pressure and societal acceptance of holiday weight gain, and instead, stay physically active and eat healthier. Your body (and belly) will thank you when the New Year rolls around.
Ben Greenfield is a fitness and triathlon expert and host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast on the Quick and Dirty Tips network. His book, "Get-Fit Guy's Guide to Achieving Your Ideal Body -- A Workout Plan for Your Unique Shape," will be published by St. Martin's Press in May 2012.