Physical Fit: Surviving the Holidays without Losing My Mind or All My Willpower

holidayweightgain

It is that time again… Well, it is that time for me again. Starting in the first days of air getting crisper, sweaters and hoodies making their appearances all over, and the epidemic of pumpkin everything, I start to feel that budding anxious feeling of pounds creeping back onto my body. My email is full of “The 7 Ways to avoid Holiday Weight Gain…” and “Follow these 17 Simple Rules to Avoid All Happiness this Season but at Least You Won’t Gain 50 Pounds Before New Year’s…” I can feel the panic and guilt sliding into my mind.

It’s true. Many a willpower has fallen before an overflowing display of favorite holiday treats and fountains of celebratory beverage. Even when I am being my most cautious and careful, I’m pretty sure that the increased caloric volume of the actual air is working against me. Every year, I promise myself that I can and will resist the holidays and their overabundance of tasty goodness. I will resist the urge to snuggle up before fire instead of getting out for my run and workout routine. Yet, I hear the fallen angel on my shoulder whispering softly things like, “It’s just once a year…” or “It’s the holidays. That negates calories and fat…” Um… yeah, get thee behind me betrayer! And so goes my struggle, much as the rest of the world. So, at least I know I am not alone. How do I know?

Well, as it happens, I read. A lot. Sometimes I even read for pure enjoyment without any graphs or statistics or comparison studies… Unfortunately, I read a lot of incredibly dry (at least to some opinions) scientific journal type articles and medical journals. Thanks to my (incredibly) pedantic reading choices, I actually came across an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that clearly defined exactly how much of a detriment that the Eat-All-The-Things season is to our health, wellbeing, and bathing suits.

Turns out, instead of setting our resolutions for better fitness and health with the clock restarting at December 31st, we should be thinking about bettering our habits starting at the end of September (Helander, Wnsink, & Chieh, 2016). According to the scientists who made a study of weight gain during the holiday season in three countries in the northern hemisphere, people are at their lowest weight during early October. Starting sometime before All Hallow’s Eve, the weight starts to increase and the average does not appear to get back to the pre-TrickorTreat days until sometime in April. The highest weigh-in on average was New Year’s Day. So, it seems that people above the equator start packing on the pounds (as much as 5 additional pounds on average) when the bulk candy starts hitting the aisles and doesn’t start depleting until Gym-crowding Month (or Gym-tending Season).

Makes you wonder… Is it just the availability of the sugary sweets and sugar plums dancing? Maybe not. There are a number of contributing factors that seem to be in play. Aside from the candy, cookies, and pies, there are multiple opportunities for celebration that surround gorge-fest food extravaganzas. It isn’t just the sweet-teeth out there that are in danger. Turkey and dressing with all the accompanying starchy sides make Thanksgiving a quagmire of dietary ruin. The unending calendar of holiday gatherings with all the favored seasonal treats beckons. Every time you turn around, people are getting together to celebrate the season, and it usually involves munchies… and drinks. Yep, that’s a definite part of the equation, specifically the equation that keeps adding numbers to the scale. Alcohol consumption definitely adds to the caloric intake. Egg nog, holiday punch, mulled wines and meads, and celebratory champagne toasts are everywhere you turn.

Then, there is the weather. It is dark later and gets dark earlier (remember, we are talking about the northern hemisphere). It’s harder to get out in the dark and cold for that early morning workout, and the cool and dark of the evenings make working out at the gym or a run less appealing than being home in front of a fire with snuggly clothes, a book, and some warm mug of your choice. And speaking of temperatures, the fashion options aren’t helping matters. Big fluffy hoodies and slouchy sweaters hide a plethora of inconvenient waistline issues. The beach-ready body that was shown off with form fitting styles and skin-baring swimwear is now safely camouflaged by woolen knits and multiple layers. “I’m not fat… I’m big sweatered.” I’m not body-shaming anyone, and some of those cooler weather styles are just legitimately adorable. However, it does make it that much easier to lose sight of our health goals as well as those waistline goals we’ve been working towards so diligently when they were more visible. (It does make me wonder if a follow up study could be done to see what the trend is for the folks Downunder.)

And now for the feels… Who are my emotional eaters out there? I can sense my people. I know that you are waving at me across the ether… or else hiding under your keyboards with your hoard of stashed Reese’s Cups saying “Nothing to see here! Move along!” The point is, I totally get it. My emotional eating isn’t depression or sadness, it is boredom and stress. Unlike some who soothe the wounds with pints… quarts… ok, gallons of Ben & Jerry’s, I am more likely to go reaching in the larder and fridge for the cure to the stress monkey hanging on my back. I’ve talked about my boredom eating previously, but I shall now propose a different scenario. The hordes of holiday visitors have landed upon the shores of the abode. Is the house ready? Is the food prepared? Is it the right food? Are there sufficient items for all, including the allergies and medical restrictions? Are you preparing that dish that is a family heirloom quite the way the ancestors prescribed…? You get the idea. All the thoughts are currently perking, bubbling, boiling, and smoking inside my cranium making the peace and good cheer… well, not so much. Rampaging around the kitchen and house trying to address all the imagined fires popping up, my hand sneaks out to grab a crisp or a spoonful of some concoction or possibly a chocolate whatnot. I mean, I have to taste it to make sure it is all right… right? Well, the occasional bite and crisp becomes mindless hand to mouth exercise that increases my food intake by an unknown amount because it was precisely that… mindless. I didn’t actually pay attention. Heck, I probably didn’t even taste it. And while we are in the kitchen trying to prepare the feast often with unsolicited advice or critique from helpful others, it might not be so unusual to find a shot, a glass… a second bottle of various liquid remedy being imbibed. It’s the holidays. Just trying to keep the peace here! The point being, aside from the added calories, stress doesn’t help when we are trying to keep the figure and fitness we achieved pre-Labor Day. On top of which, the addition of the happy sauce sometimes clouds us to the amount of food we are washing down with the cocktail(s).

So, those are the struggles. What are the fixes? I’ve read a lot on that as well. Summarizing some of the most helpful tips would be one word: Mindfulness. Mainly, be aware of what you are doing and be present in the moment. That will help a lot of the automatic feeding. Most of the experts say to indulge (not overindulge) in your favorites, but leave off on the holiday dishes that generally are a “Meh” for you. It isn’t necessary to eat everything. One of the no-brainers that I know I am guilty of myself is the “saving myself for” syndrome. Knowing I have a party, get-together, or buffet of treats on the horizon, I find myself skipping meals to save the calories for the goodies. The problem with that would be that I’m so ravenous by the time I get to the feast that I eat way more of everything than I would have otherwise. Better to maintain a nice balanced and healthy feeding schedule.

Watch the cocktails. Seriously, there are way more calories consumed in our celebration shots than we give credit. Remembering to rotate non-alcoholic beverages, water, or seltzer for a happy fizz will help decrease the amount of booze calories without pooping on the party.

The stress eating and drinking… this is my big one, and I have a couple of big allies to help on this one. First of all, keeping a decent sleep schedule despite the parties is a big one. With packed schedules and various obligations hitting at the end of the year, it is sometimes more difficult than usual to catch the Zzzz’s, but I know that I am trying to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm and follow the good sleep hygiene habits I’ve worked on this year. I am hopeful that will help me keep on track. And, of course, my physical fit… While my workout routines and running have been fueled by a desire to be less horrifying when naked, I have found that the physical activity (specifically the aerobic portion) also keeps me sane and less at risk of dissolving into a fanged she-beast ready to bite the heads off unsuspecting family and friends. I know, there are those of you out there saying “If I had to run a mile, something better be about to bite me…” but I promise there is science behind my madness. It turns out that several studies have been done showing that aerobic exercise increases brain activity, specifically of the alpha wave variety (Bergland, 2015; Crabbe & Dischman, 2004; Gutmann, et al., 2015). In fact, during and immediately after aerobic exercise (the kind where you breathe harder and your heart rate goes up) alpha wave activity significantly increases, much like meditation. So what? It turns out that this particular type of brain activity is what happens when we are in idle, drifting, daydreaming, or meditating. The impact on creativity has been shown in studies as well as the use of this type of thought pattern in treating anxiety and depression. Voila! I brought it back to the point without flying off planet. Keeping up with your exercise routine with some aerobic activity involved can help with holiday blues or seasonal angst. Meditation is all well and good, but when you have the house full of people, running (quite literally) away might be more effective than trying to find alone time to get in some “Ohms.”

delicious-how-grinch-stole-christmasI think I have a game plan, now. At least I have a fair assortment of options and strategies to help me get through the season. Actually, if I rope in a few teammates and coaches to remind me when I start wandering off the path, I should get through fairly unscathed. Enjoy your holidays!

 

Bergland, C. (2015). Alpha Brain Waves Boost Creativity and Reduce Depression. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201504/alpha-brain-waves-boost-creativity-and-reduce-depression

Crabbe, J., & Dischman, R. (2004). Brain electrocortical activity during and after exercise: A quantitative synthesis. Psychophysiology, 41(4), 563-574. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.2004.00176.x

Gutmann, B., Mierau, A., Hülsdünker, T., Hildebrand, C., Przyklenk, A., Hollmann, W., & Strüder, H. K. (2015). Effects of Physical Exercise on Individual Resting State EEG Alpha Peak Frequency. Neural Plasticity, 2015, 717312. http://doi.org/10.1155/2015/717312

Helander, E., Wansink, B., & Chieh, A. (2016). Weight gain over the holidays in three countries. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(12). Retrieved from http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012

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