Holiday Weight Gain: Eating Too Much, Doing Too Little or Stressed Out?

The holiday season is a popular time for binge eating and drinking, which oftentimes leads to unwanted weight gain. No surprise there. But, overeating and over-drinking aren’t always the culprits, as numerous other factors like physical inactivity and otherwise sedentary behaviors (more sitting and lying down) also play major roles. Still, of all the factors that can cause you to pack on pounds during the holidays, one of the most frequently overlooked is stress.

Related Article: Five Tips for Preventing Holiday Weight Gain

In fact, even the minor stress associated with juggling family life and work with parties, shopping, hosting, planning and traveling is significant enough to erase much of the weight loss progress you’ve made throughout the year.

How Stress Affects the Body

Excess stress substantially elevates the release of a powerful hormone called cortisol. Under normal circumstances, cortisol functions in providing the body with enough energy to cope with life’s day-to-day challenges. Problems arise when you’re stressed out every day, all the time.

Cortisol has a specific role in physically preparing the body for any and all situations that are perceived as ‘dangerous’, whether life-threatening or not. This essentially means your cortisol levels can become elevated from something as simple as a flight delay to something as life changing as a death in the family.

Unfortunately, cortisol causes three key changes in the body that ultimately lead to weight gain.

First, it increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. Excess blood glucose is eventually converted into and stored as visceral (belly) fat.

Related Article: Stress: A Major Culprit Behind Weight Gain, Belly Fat, and Chronic Disease

Second, cortisol causes your body to retain salt and water leading to excessive water weight gain.

And, finally, it triggers the breakdown of muscle protein and decreases amino acid uptake by muscles. Such effects can cause muscle wasting and potentially slow the metabolic rate (the rate at which your body inherently burns calories).

Related Article: The Important Role of Metabolism in Weight Loss

Ways to Avoid the Negative Effects of Stress

If you are frequently exposed to stress during the holiday season you’re definitely at risk of cortisol-related weight gain. The risk of weight gain is further increased if you’re an emotional eater who tends to eat more when you’re stressed.

I tend to be an emotional eater when stressed. As such, when confronted with holiday hassles, I ignore those urges to eat by putting on my tennis shoes and getting in a workout. Here are three exercise strategies that I personally recommend.

Related Article Eating Without a Conscience: My Personal Battle with Food Addiction 

Lifting Weights

Weight training provides an outlet by which you can channel your stress, as doing so significantly heightens the levels of endorphins and other ‘feel good’ hormones in the body. When coupled with a well-balanced diet of high-quality carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein, lifting weights also prevents cortisol-associated muscle wasting thereby preserving the metabolic rate.

Related Article: 5 Reasons Why Resistance Training Is Necessary for Weight Loss

In addition, one moderate-to-high-intensity weight training session can elevate the metabolic rate for up to 12 hours meaning you’ll burn more calories during any given activity, even while you’re resting.

Performing Intense Cardio Exercise

During the holiday season, time is definitely of the essence. You can save yourself a whole lot of it while reducing your overall stress levels by dropping the long monotonous bouts of cardio exercise and opting for shorter more intense workouts instead.

When performed at a high enough intensity, a 20-minute bout of cardio exercise increases endorphin levels to a much greater extent than an hour-long session. By intense I mean hill or stair climbing, running or very intense walk/run intervals, cycling at very high speeds, cardio kickboxing or other intense group-exercise formats, and timed-lap swimming.

Related Article: 5 Cheap and Convenient Ways to Burn Fat Fast

Be Spontaneously Active

Taking the stairs throughout the day in place of the elevator, parking as far as possible from a destination, or just implementing periodic walks all constitute spontaneous forms of physical activity and they are highly effective for stress management.

As a teenager, I’d often come home from school with stress-related mood swings and my mother would immediately tell me to “get out and go for a walk”. When I returned, she’d look at me with a grin and ask: “Now, don’t you feel better?” I always did.

When faced with holiday hassles like family conflicts, party-planning frustrations, or even overeating guilt, don’t stress out. Get up, get out and do something spontaneous.

Related Article: Five Interesting Ways to Exercise Without Exercising

The Net-Net 

To reduce the likelihood of holiday weight gain it’s important to find productive ways of coping with stress. In addition to the exercise strategies I’ve recommended, yoga, Tai Chi and meditation are all effective methods for holiday stress management.