By Max Cuneo, Nutritionist
From around mid-November until mid-January is when the so called ‘silly season’ occurs. By mid-December [it] is usually in full swing. Social gatherings, family catch-ups, time away holidaying to sunny or cold destinations, are examples of people pursuing some hard earned down-time from the hustle and bustle that we call life. During our down time around the end of the year is when certain behaviour patterns can be observed. This may include increased food consumption and decreased physical activity leading to weight gain with one study finding that between November to Jan an individual may put on up to ~1.5kg of extra weight. This weight is likely body fat compared to an extra 1.5kgs of extra muscle… Additionally, this added weight is likely due to increased food consumption rather than the decrease in physical activity as one recent study found last year (2020).
From a clinical perspective, I have spoken to hundreds of people between 2017 (when I graduated uni) to now and have noticed that many people train so hard the majority of the year particularly in the lead up to the end of the year then once holiday season takes full flight.. this commitment drops off substantially. This is all good and well as everyone deserves a break occasionally. However it’s much harder to condition your body to an aerobic and anaerobic stimulus, let alone growing muscle, than it is to decrease the fitness characteristics from lack of exercise or becoming ‘too’ relaxed over the holiday period or becoming disenchanted from any sort of physical activity. Meaning… it’s easier to lose all your hard work than it is to increase it. However, if you can’t relate to this and you’re exercise or dietary habits don’t deviate too much over the holiday period than this is wonderful.. but for many.. this isn’t the case.
Benefits of a social life
There is a ‘tonne’ of anecdotal evidence out there talking about the benefits towards mental health via social interactions with friends, loved ones, or in group exercise class. However, there is credible information that supports this too. There are many ways an individual can promote a positive mental health state and two of these are interacting with people of value (e.g. family and friends) and physical activity. A systematic review and meta-analysis of ~160,000 people spanning multiple studies supports this notion that there are many ways to promote mental health. Therefore, getting out and about to catch up with friends and loved-ones, is highly beneficial to improving your mental health. Mental health isn’t just about ‘being happy’ it also includes: mental health literacy, navigating emotions, self-perceptions and values, quality of life, cognitive skills, social skills, physical and sexual health, academic/occupational performance and attitudes towards mental disorders (Salazar de Pablo et al., 2020). The point I’m making here is the inclusion of social factors into a person’s life is likely going to have some sort of physical or psychological benefit. So hanging out with friends or having a beer with a loved one over the Christmas break actually have many positive outcomes. However, being mindful of frequency or volume of these interactions (and beers) is something to be mindful of.
Risks of increased calorie consumption and decreased energy expenditure
Weight increase may be the result of 1 of 3 things (under normal physiological conditions) increased food consumption resulting in calorie surplus, decreased physical activity/exercise resulting in calorie surplus, or both an increase in overall calories consumed and a concurrent decrease in physical activity. The latter results in the greatest level of weight gain an individual may experience. If a diet is not optimised to consider protein consumption and there is also not a consideration of resistance training as the form of exercise than this calorie surplus will likely result in the weight gain predominately being fat. Therefore, this is a ‘double-edged blade’ if you’re eating too much and not moving enough in the correct ways (e.g. resistance training)!
Strategies anyone can use to mitigate unplanned weight gain
- Some exercise is better than none
- Structure some exercise on days where you know you are likely to consume more food and/or [calorie dense] drinks (including alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages). This will promote a greater chance you’ll closer to a calorie maintenance amount (equal energy balance). At a minimum you will likely decrease the magnitude of calorie surplus. The latter is a good thing because it will be easier to ‘burn off’ at a later date.
- Stick to as many usual eating and fluid consumption (water) habits as you usually would. It’s still important to try and do 90%* of things (food and drink consumption) correctly and allow for that 10%* of flexibility (e.g. prawns and champagne) over the Christmas break.
⚠️ * %’s are arbitrary and are used as a hypothetical example and to create a practical example. You’re personal habits may differ to this depending on your lifestyle and how much food you usually consume (total calories) and how much exercise/physical activity you usually participate in.
- Choose no-sugar drinks when not consuming water
- Don’t go to Christmas parties on an empty stomach… eat a snack/meal than contains a high-quality protein source and is also high in fibre… This will help mitigate hunger levels decreasing the chance of over-consumption.
- If wanting to maintain muscle (or even grow some) over the holiday break, ensure your training consists of resistance training! This could be calisthenics (body weight exercises that provide AT LEAST 50-60% of your 1RM for that exercise), recreational gym, public gym equipment, resistance bands, etc. Caveat: if training light at only say 50-60% intensity of your 1RM you will need to essentially train until failure per set to see any benefit of muscle retention or potentially small increases in muscle mass. Two papers written by Burd et al. (2010) and Barcelos et al. (2015) discuss this further in depth with more specific numbers if you’re interested in the read
This is not an extensive list of ways to manage increased calorie consumption and decreased physical activity levels but it should be a start to help provide you with some practical strategies.
Don’t get me wrong.. Enjoy your holiday break. Catch up with friends and family and provide yourself with many opportunities to restore your health, replace your energy systems with added nutrients if needed, repair your body and mind, and rest to promote recovery and growth. However, as always moderation, moderation, moderation.. and balance out higher calorie days with some exercise on ‘social-days’ OR any other days outside these events.
Barcelos, L. C., Nunes, P. R., De Souza, L. R., De Oliveira, A. A., Furlanetto, R., Marocolo, M. & Orsatti, F. L. 2015. Low-load resistance training promotes muscular adaptation regardless of vascular occlusion, load, or volume. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 115, 1559-68.
Bhutani, S., Wells, N., Finlayson, G. & Schoeller, D. A. 2020. Change in eating pattern as a contributor to energy intake and weight gain during the winter holiday period in obese adults. International Journal of Obesity, 44, 1586-1595.
Burd, N. A., West, D. W., Staples, A. W., Atherton, P. J., Baker, J. M., Moore, D. R., Holwerda, A. M., Parise, G., Rennie, M. J., Baker, S. K. & Phillips, S. M. 2010. Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PLoS One, 5, e12033.
Salazar De Pablo, G., De Micheli, A., Nieman, D. H., Correll, C. U., Kessing, L. V., Pfennig, A., Bechdolf, A., Borgwardt, S., Arango, C., Van Amelsvoort, T., Vieta, E., Solmi, M., Oliver, D., Catalan, A., Verdino, V., Di Maggio, L., Bonoldi, I., Vaquerizo-Serrano, J., Baccaredda Boy, O., Provenzani, U., Ruzzi, F., Calorio, F., Nosari, G., Di Marco, B., Famularo, I., Molteni, S., Filosi, E., Mensi, M., Balottin, U., Politi, P., Shin, J. I. & Fusar-Poli, P. 2020. Universal and selective interventions to promote good mental health in young people: Systematic review and meta-analysis. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 41, 28-39.
Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O’neil, P. M. & Sebring, N. G. 2000. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England Journal of Medicine, 342, 861-867.