The Cost of 'Taking a Break' for the Holidays

By , SparkPeople Blogger
I’m writing to you as a card-carrying SparkPeople member today!  I’m in my third year of maintenance so I’ve learned a few things about both losing and maintaining weight loss.  The year is drawing to a close and I think it’s appropriate now more than ever to discuss what it means to "take a break." 

The first few weeks of losing weight are exciting.  You are ready to get rid of the extra pounds that you carry and you are motivated.  Your reasons are personal and many of you may be motivated by extrinsic factors.  Counting calories, points, or whatever your system is easy and you are exercising with consistency.  The pounds are flying off (mostly in the form of water weight) and your clothes are starting to feel looser.  You may even start to get some compliments that provide even more fuel to keep going for yet another day.  But (I know you saw this coming), after some time that “new diet” feeling starts to wear off and you start to struggle.  Most people hit the first rough patch within the first two weeks.  It may take others a couple of months before they start to lose steam and start to wonder why they can’t go back to doing things the "old way." But, there comes a time when you will struggle to stay on track and the lure of returning to your old habits seems almost impossible to resist.  There is even some evidence that suggests your own body is sending out hormones to try to convince you to return to your old ways!

If you started your journey at SparkPeople, you are well-aware that what we are not proponents of diets.  Diets, as commonly defined, have a start date and an end date.  The end date of the diet signifies the day that you begin to return to your old habits thus also signifying the date you begin to regain the lost pounds.

But, let’s be realistic here.  It’s not possible to keep your motivation and willpower strong at all times.  There will be times, usually during stress, that you need to focus on more pressing matters.  There will be illnesses, job changes, relationship problems, financial problems, etc.  These stressors, in many cases, will erode your willpower and motivation and will make it more difficult to stay on track. 

What are your options during these difficult days? You can go with the “all or none” mentality and choose "all" to stay on track or you can choose "none" and go back to your old habits.  Alternately, you can choose a middle ground.  What I want to highlight today is the danger of choosing “none” and “taking a break” and to give some examples of what it’s like to choose somewhere in the middle. 

Giving up and “taking a break” is probably not the best choice to make.  I’ve heard many people say that they are “taking a break” and will resume living a healthy lifestyle after a certain date.  It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that they are going to start again “after the holidays.” 

So, let’s look the caloric toll and add up what might happen between November 1 and January 1 if you decide to “take a break.”

The numbers used here are simply estimates of calorie needs and expenditures.  Please do not get caught up on them because your body is not a calculator.  SparkPeople has wonderful trackers that enable you to figure out your personal caloric needs based on your level of activity.  However, I am using these generic numbers to illustrate the caloric differential of weight maintenance vs. losing vs. gaining.  The caloric differential of what your body needs vs. consumes is ultimately the key and the point of the following examples.

Our sample SparkPeople member is:
  • an extremely motivated obese female
  • actively losing 1-2 pounds a week
  • on 1,500-calorie per day plan
  • exercising five times per week burning 300 calories per session
Her (sedentary) basal metabolic rate: about 2,000 calories per day (the calories needed to maintain her current weight).  

Her deficit: about 5,000 calories per week
  • 500 a day from diet X 7 days = 3,500
  • 300 calories X 5 days a week from exercise = 1,500
  • That equals her about 1-2 pounds per week on average weight loss (3,500 calories=one pound lost but remember that your body is NOT a calculator)
Result:  If she continues her lifestyle change from November 1 through New Year’s she could lose about 12-13 pounds of fat and will be down a dress size for the new year!

Now, let's see what happens when she “takes a break” for the holidays. 
She is now:
  • eating an average of 2,500 calories per day (a surplus of 500 calories over her basal metabolic rate)
  • not exercising (she has lost the 1,500 calories per week she burned by working out) 
Result:  She is now gaining 1-2 pounds of fat per week as opposed to losing. 
January 1 rolls around and it is possible for her to have gained 12-13 pounds of fat. 

However, the scale might show she has gained about 15-20 pounds (she probably has 7-10 pounds of water along with the new stored fat).  That’s a 25 pound swing!
Happy New Year! 

Some people can do much worse than this.  I know I can--and I have!

What are some other potential scenarios?
She can:
  • keep her same exercise schedule (burning 300 calories 5 days a week)
  • still eat 2,500 calories per day. 
Result: She will save herself 3-4 pounds of weight gain. 

Alternatively, she can:
  • keep her exercise the same
  • eat an average of 2,000 calories a day
Result: Using this example, she will do more than maintain she will lose 3-4 pounds by the first of the year! She had her cake and ate it, too!

Why should you keep exercising even during break time?  As you can see, exercise can help you minimize the damage while you are getting back on track.  Exercise in and of itself relieves stress and can help you stay on track during those times when you feel like you need to take a break.  If you are feeling burned out by your current exercise routine, this is the perfect time to find a new way to stay active!

The bottom line:
  • Taking a break should not and does not have to be an all or none decision.  Minimizing any weight gain through exercise and practicing at least some moderation with your caloric intake will make a big difference and is worth the effort.  Understand that the “all or none” mentality does not work well in the real world, and there is no such thing as an "end date" for a true lifestyle change that leads to successful weight management. 

  • Resist the urge to take a break.  If you are tired or burned out, attempt to minimize the damage while you troubleshoot why you are having a hard time staying on plan.  Enlist the support of your family and/or join a SparkTeam!  My hope is that you take rethink the urge to throw caution to the wind and continue to work towards your goals year round.   
Pick yourself up after every fall and keep sparking everyone!
 What is your plan for this holiday season?