If it’s not the homemade cookies and cakes that get you, the eggnog and cocktails will certainly do their best to tempt you into overindulging. While we may still be lingering in the land of everything pumpkin, we're just a snowball's throw away from the start of the winter holiday season—and with that comes the veritable blizzard of dinners, parties and edible gifts. When you're trying to lose or maintain your weight, this time of year is filled with tantalizing temptations that could derail even the best of intentions.
Indeed, studies show that weight tends to increase during the heart of the holiday season, which stretches from November to January. In fact, how much you weigh in October is likely the lightest you'll be all year, with most people seeing a steady climb through New Year's. Fortunately, you're not powerless against that sobering statistic. Start making a few slight adjustments to your mindset and approach today, and you’ll be poised to keep those extra winter pounds at bay.
1. Don't let your workout schedule freeze up.
With the flurry of invites and obligations that usher in the holidays, it may seem like you have a slim chance of making it to the gym on a regular basis. Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says it's more important than ever to stick to your workout schedule during the holidays. Not only will physical activity keep your weight in check, it also helps to lower stress levels, strengthen the immune system and boost energy levels—all essential ingredients for a happy, healthy holiday.
Why 90 days? Sarah Ann Kelly with Mom Trainer recommends this timeframe because it allows for big accomplishments. Your goal might be to lose 10 pounds, to finish your first 5K, to log 60 days of exercise or whatever objective keeps you motivated (and maybe just a little bit scared). Having a concrete goal in mind is likely to increase your chances of sticking to the plan.
When you have a workout buddy waiting for you, you'll be much more likely to show up at the gym, a fitness class or just the sidewalk outside your house for a quick stroll around the neighborhood. "Choose someone who is stronger than you are during the holidays," suggests Krista Kelch, ACE-certified personal trainer at Fit Armadillo. "Set a specific schedule for when you'll check in with them." By partnering with someone who is committed to their own goals, you’ll have more motivation to stay the course.
If you adopt healthier habits now, they'll be old hat when the holidays roll around, says Melissa Leavitt, ACE-certified personal trainer with Fit Armadillo. Design a regimen that fits with your lifestyle and that you can adhere to all winter long. For instance, if you already know it will be difficult to fit in exercise at the end of a long, errand-filled day, start working out first thing in the morning, or squeeze in a few mini-sessions throughout the day. If you get into a groove before the holidays begin, it will be easier to maintain your fitness schedule when holiday commitments threaten to take over.
"Forming a habit can take some time, so the earlier you start, the more likely your good habits will be in motion by the time Thanksgiving comes around," says Mandy Unanski Enright, MS, RDN with Nutrition Nuptials. "And don’t forget to do a Thanksgiving morning workout, followed by a Black Friday workout."
Exercise for its own sake may seem doable on a warm, sunny day, but that first cold, dark morning could make you want to burrow beneath the covers and postpone your workout until, say, spring. To combat snow-triggered slacking, Rumsey suggests committing to a race or fitness event scheduled for sometime between December and February.
"Having a concrete goal in sight will help you stay motivated to continue training during the holidays," says Rumsey. She also recommends trying a new outdoor activity that's conducive to the weather, which could mean temporarily trading your daily jog for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
"Nothing gets me going like a new challenge; I stay focused knowing I've got some work to do," says Kelly. "Try a new class with friends, sign up for a seasonal sport or talk to your trainer about incorporating new moves into your program. Keeping your workouts fresh and new will help you stay motivated."
As fitness author Rachel Straub points out, recent research has shown that resistance training with weights increases muscle mass and reduces fat, while cardio exercises only reduce fat. "If your goal is to speed up your metabolism and prevent holiday weight gain, resistance training is essential," she says. While some might be intimidated by the weight room atmosphere, it’s important to remember that absolutely everyone—yes, even that guy in the tank top bench pressing your weight—was once a beginner. Start slow and you might surprise yourself with your own strength.
7. Change your food mindset.
Ever sat down to Thanksgiving dinner or walked into a Christmas party and been overwhelmed by the spread? With such a surplus of scrumptious options, it's easy to feel overwhelmed—and perhaps even pressured to consume your share (or more).
Flanagan offers this unique tip for preventing holiday overindulging: "Adopt an 'abundance mindset' around food rather than a 'scarcity mindset,' which means realizing that food will always be around and available." As you’re filling your plate, remind yourself that the succulent Thanksgiving turkey, holiday cookies and mashed potatoes will be at the grocery store year-round, so there's no need to overeat them now.
When you've exceeded your turkey quota at Thanksgiving or succumbed to too much sangria on New Year's, your first impulse might be to put a moratorium on eating in general—but Rumsey says that skipping meals could actually bring your progress to a screeching halt.
"Make sure you're consistently eating three meals per day, with one or two snacks," Rumsey recommends. "Skipping meals sets you up for fluctuating blood sugar levels, which can make the stress response even worse." Plus, when you finally do eat, you'll likely feel so hungry that you'll wolf down whatever's in front of you, making smart choices more difficult.
If you simply don't trust yourself to bypass the bevy of temptations that await, consider working with a dietitian or nutritionist to get you through the next few months. According to Enright, the holiday season is when many people need the most support and guidance, but it's also a time when dieters are likely to wave the white flag.
"A lot of people may feel that just because they overindulged at a few holiday parties, everything has gone out the window and they'll just restart in January," says Enright. "Instead of giving up, it's important to continue working with your dietitian and/or fitness trainer during the holiday season."
When Kelly works in corporate settings, she's always appalled by how much junk sits out in the company kitchen: "Treats from home, themed snacks, sugary snacks disguised as 'all natural' or 'healthy'—none of which belongs in your tummy!" For those who work in an office, Kelly recommends setting a treat limit of just once or twice per week. Or, make a personal rule to abstain from eating anything a coworker brings from home.
In our culture, food and fun are inextricably linked. It's hard to imagine a holiday party without a smorgasbord of eats and treats, Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie or a New Year's gathering without sparkling cocktails. This year, buck the trend by finding fun activities that don't involve feasting.
"There are many food-free things to love about the winter months," Kelly says. "Create traditions to volunteer, donate old items, visit relatives or go ice skating or sledding. It doesn't have to be all about the food!"
Just as it's never a good idea to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, showing up hungry to a holiday party is a recipe for poor food choices and overindulgence. Straub recommends bringing along healthy food options in case you're not able to find anything, and to pay close attention to your level of fullness. "Learn to stop eating when you're 80 to 90 percent full, not 120 percent," she says. "Even if you have selected less than ideal foods, not overeating will prevent weight gain."
The key to successfully managing food-laden celebrations, Leavitt says, is finding the middle ground between deprivation and indulgence. "If you say no to everything all the time, you'll feel deprived and more likely to indulge way too much when you're vulnerable." She recommends practicing the French "three-bite rule". "Really want that mac and cheese or pie? Take three bites. It's enough to satisfy your taste buds, and usually after that third bite, you're no longer getting the satisfaction you got with the first and second."
If you're not measuring your goals, how will you know when to celebrate? Kelly emphasizes the importance of continual tracking. "Keep a calendar or note in your phone with your weekly progress, so you can see what's working and what's not," she recommends. "I keep my workout log in my day planner and check it every day. The more 'in my face' my goals are, the less likely I am to bail." Ongoing tracking will also help you catch any weight gain early, so you can make quick adjustments and prevent five pounds from snowballing into 10 or 20.
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