How to avoid putting on five pounds over the holiday season

“5 pounds”. This is how much weight people think they gain over the holidays. But what’s really going on? How does the body balance energy intake and expenditure on a long-term basis? And how is this affected by changes to our normal eating patterns during this holiday period?

Weight gain results from a discrepancy between energy intake and energy expenditure – eating more food than needed to meet the body’s energy requirements. The typical adult gains 1 lb of body weight each year. Averaged out over the year, this represents just 9 calories extra per day. Clearly this is the wrong way to look at long-term weight gain. Our bodies have several intricate (and poorly understood) mechanisms for adapting energy expenditure to match energy intake; this is a topic for another day. However, experimental studies do show that periods of indulgence are poorly managed by this system – i.e. long-term weight gain occurs because of short windows of significant excess intake.

Body weight is an easy target to focus on, but there are other metrics to examine when considering how holiday excesses may affect the body’s health. A key one is body composition – i.e. the proportion of body weight that is fat. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma found that although the average body weight of participants remained unchanged over the holiday season, there was a significant increase in body fatness and especially central body fat. This suggests that by merely measuring weight, people may not realise the potentially harmful effects of holiday indulgences on their body and their risk for future disease development.

So what can we do about this? The holiday season presents many challenges to the body, as we typically change our quantity, quality, and timing of food intake, while simultaneously becoming less active. Rather than try to “eat healthy” over the holidays, a sensible approach would be to take simple steps to minimise the size of disturbance to the body’s systems of energy balance.

  1. Keep your regular meal pattern – avoid skipping or combining meals. The body can more effectively absorb and manage nutrients provided by regular meals through the day, rather than by one large feast. For example, eating brunch followed by an early (and large) dinner changes both the quantity and timing of food intake.
  2. Enjoy your favourite foods. Eat the special dishes you look forward to, but decline the everyday foods that are available all year round. Allow yourself to indulge, just not on everything.
  3. Seek quality and variety. If confronted by a buffet table, consider trying small sample-size portions of many different dishes, rather than excessive quantities. Take the time to slowly savour and appreciate what you are eating.
  4. Monitor alcohol intake. Alcoholic drinks provide calories both from their sugar content and from the alcohol itself (each gram of alcohol contains 7 calories). This can quickly add up. Additionally, the proper processing of other nutrients is delayed while the liver metabolises this alcohol.
  5. Stay active. This is especially key to avoid a change in body composition from muscle mass toward body fat. In addition, including daily exercise will help avoid feelings of sluggishness and heaviness brought on by spending too much time indoors and sedentary.
Focus Personal Fitness Studio

Tips on getting someone else started on a fitness regime

As the holiday season approaches, I am often asked for advice on how to get someone else started on a fitness program. As many of us are fortunate to have so much, every year it seems harder and harder to give a gift to a loved one that quite often has most of everything they want or need anyway. One thing you cannot easily give another person is health. Ultimately the decisions each of us make in terms of activity, food intake, and getting proper rest play a large role in what we can control about our health. If you are thinking about trying to get a friend or family member started in fitness here are some ideas that can help.

Centre some of your visit with them around physical activity

We often find it easy to spend time with each other over dinner and perhaps a drink. It could also be a movie or a watching a sporting event. These activities can be fun, but they can also contribute to lower fitness levels. We are so fortunate to have many great areas around Kingston such as Lemoine Point or Cataraqui Creek . If someone has not been physically active for a while, the notion of going to a gym may be too much, too soon. You may not be able to dictate their level of activity, but adding even something like outdoor walks as the reason for your time together can help ease someone back into placing a higher value on their own level of fitness.

Help them understand how difficult it was for you to start your fitness journey

We all know that the hardest part of fitness and health is just getting started. All of us started from somewhere, and helping your friend or family member along is really about them deciding that they should take the first step. It can be intimidating giving fitness advice when you may be seen as the healthy person telling another person that “they should start going to the gym.” Even suggesting you will take them may be intimidating. Help them understand that your first steps were also difficult.

Break down a vision into more specific targets

Simply being fit is not a goal. For most people it’s what you do with that fitness that makes it tangible. Oftentimes a milestone birthday, turning over the calendar to a new year, or the birth of a child or grandchild can help someone understand the importance of fitness. Use these milestones to help plant the seed of fitness.  A timeline that can spark someone to action today may be knowing that they may want to be an active grandparent and be capable of caring for that child in a few years. Their goal may be to one day have the ability to take them on a hike, go camping, or on a bike ride. Working backwards, it may be that taking up a running program can lead to a 5KM or 10KM race eventrun, or an introductory triathlon program could provide a measurable short term goal that gets them there.

What we can offer at Focus Personal Fitness?

We have many programs to get started. First off, it’s essential that someone who has not been active for a while gets a basic assessment. We do those for free. Our winter indoor cycling  or Megan’s learn to run program are designed for beginners.  One other popular trend at the gym is having two people join a regular personal training session. It’s a sad reality that we are often more committed to others than we are to ourselves – but use this to your advantage.

We see a higher level of long term commitment when members join with either a close friend or a loved one. It also costs less per person than a one on one session. It may be that the best gift you can give someone this year is a combination of your time and their fitness. If we can help, contact Hope and we will get you planning.

Happy Holidays from our team to you and yours. Be safe and keep fit.

Focus Personal Fitness Studio