Weight gain is quite common during the holiday season. While it’s often linked to overeating, overdrinking, or otherwise overindulging, these aren’t always the culprits. In fact, physical inactivity and sedentary behaviors (more sitting and lying down) in general also play major roles.
Interestingly, of all the factors that can cause you to pack on pounds during the holidays, one of the most frequently overlooked is stress. Even small stresses like juggling family life and work with parties, shopping, hosting, planning and traveling can play a significant role in holiday weight gain.
To understand why, you must first understand how stress affects the body.
How Stress Affects the Body
The presence of stress can trigger a cascade of events that generally begin in the brain and lead to a well-orchestrated release of stress hormones. The primary stress hormone is 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 perceived as ‘dangerous’, whether life-threatening or not. This essentially means that cortisol levels can increase 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.
- Increases the amount of glucose (sugar) in your bloodstream. Excess blood glucose is eventually converted into and stored as visceral (belly) fat.
- Causes your body to retain more salt. Excess salt causes water retention, which ultimately leads to bloating and puffiness in certain areas of the body, especially the belly area, legs, and arms.
- Triggers muscle protein breakdown and decreases amino acid uptake. This leads to muscle wasting and reductions in metabolism (the rate at which your body inherently burns calories).
Ways to Avoid the Negative Effects of Stress
If you’re frequently exposed to stress during the holiday season you’re definitely at risk of cortisol-related weight gain. But, luckily, it is inevitable! Below I’ve highlighted some simple strategies for countering the potentially negative effects of stress.
Weightlifting can be an effective outlet for channeling your stress, as doing so significantly heightens the levels of endorphins and other ‘feel good’ hormones in the body. Lifting weights can also help prevent cortisol-related muscle wasting thereby preserving the metabolic rate.
In fact, just one moderate-to-high-intensity weight training session can elevate the metabolic rate for up to 12 hours. This essentially means you’ll burn more calories during any given activity, even while you’re resting.
Performing Intense Cardio
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 things like hill or stair climbing, running or intense walk/run intervals, and cycling at very high speeds.
Being 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, such activities 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.
To reduce the likelihood of holiday weight gain, it’s important to find productive ways of coping with stress. In addition to the strategies I’ve highlighted here, yoga, Tai Chi and meditation also represent highly effective methods for holiday stress management.