Holidays + Shift Work + Celebrations + Winter Weather = Weight Gain?


By John Chamberlin

I don’t need to tell you that there is a lot going on this time of year – holiday parties, snacking at work, less chance for exercise between shifts due to family obligations and weather.  All of these, plus the fact that we are gearing up for a new year (and new resolutions), are potentially an issue with gaining unhealthy pounds.  I sat down with John Jakicic, Director of the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh and got some insight.  (No we did NOT snack while we talked!)

Q: There seems to be plenty of opportunity to over indulge in everything this time of year:  parties, family gatherings, socializing, and drinking alcohol.  Is this really a trend or is this more of an urban legend?

Dr. Jakicik: There have been studies that have examined changes in body weight during the holiday season. The findings vary greatly.  You are correct that this is a time when weight gain can occur, but the magnitude really varies by the individual.  What is most concerning is that in some of these studies it was shown that the largest weight gain actually occurs in the most overweight or obese individuals – those who really cannot afford to gain additional weight.  So, the added calories from the parties, family gatherings, and just having those extra cookies sitting around the house that many consume can gradually add up.

Q: What are the biggest pitfalls in eating habits this time of year?  Especially for people who are working flexible shifts?

Dr. Jakicik: This is tough because there is the potential to be so many.  Probably the biggest pitfall is a lack of understanding related to how many extra calories are actually being consumed through the snacking.  For example, every cookie that is consumed probably ranges from 50 to 200 calories each, which would not take long to pack on the pounds.  An example of the importance of knowing how many calories are actually consumed over the holidays is supported by scientific research.  One study showed that when individuals recorded their calorie intake in a daily diary during the holiday season that this was much less weight gain when compared to those who did not keep track of their calories.

Q: I think we get the impression that overeating at a few parties makes us overweight.  That’s not really the case is it?

Dr. Jakicik: Overeating at a few parties that occurs between the Thanksgiving and New Year’s holiday are probably not the cause of the weight gain that can occur over the holidays.  However, the more parties that occur the greater the chances of weight gain.  So, probably more than 1 party per week could be detrimental.

Moreover, food is everywhere during the holidays. So, the constant “grazing” that occurs sometimes at work, also has a significant impact on weight gain.  Thus, a good tip is to only have a much of the snacks around the house that you really need to entertain guests that you are expecting.  Also, go into a party with a plan on how you plan to control your calories, and remember, alcohol has plenty of calories as well.

Coupled with lots of food around the holidays, there can be a trend to exercise less given the weather conditions.

Q: Gym memberships seem to go up this time of year as well but what are your best suggestions for a good exercise routine through the holidays and winter in general?

Dr. Jakicik: While gym memberships spike right after the New Year, we also know that about 50 percent of those who have a gym membership at the beginning of the year will stop going or irregularly go to the gym by March.  So, simply getting a gym membership is not the answer.

What is important is that it is understood that for most it is not the “exercise” per se that matters, but how many calories one burns over the course of the day. So, if getting to the gym is a problem, there are plenty of other options.   For example, time is always a barrier.  However, there is plenty of research now showing that taking three 10-minute walks more per day than you typically would has the same effect as taking one 30-minute walk.

Many workers perceive that they are more active than they actually are. So, get a pedometer and see how active you really are at work, and then make it a goal to get 2000 more steps per day while at work. This activity can really make a difference in minimizing the holiday weight gain.

Q: Around the corner is the New Year’s resolution of “losing weight.”  Do you have a top 3 or top 5 to help people, like health care workers who work shifts, to sustain the resolution?

Dr. Jakicik:

1.       Plan.  Have a plan that is specific.  Simply stating that you are going to lose weight or exercise more is not enough.  Define exactly how you will do this and make it work in your busy day.  If you fail to plan then you plan to fail when it comes to weight control and exercise.

2.       Take 10.  Regardless of your activity level, plan on adding 2-3 additional 10-minute walks throughout the day.  However, just remember that for each 10 minute brisk walk that you take you burn about 50 extra calories, so this does not give you the liberty to eat whatever you what and in any quantity that you want.

3.       Keep Track.  Keep a diary of the foods that you eat and how many calories are consumed.  This small change has been shown to be very effective with regard to eating behavior change, by reducing portion size and those unwanted calories.

4.       Weigh yourself often.  Research has clearly shown that more frequent days of weighing yourself will minimize weight gain and actually result in weight loss for those desiring to lose weight.

5.       Elicit social support. Engage others around you in your weight loss efforts.  Having other family members, friends, and co-workers who are striving for the same goal can make a difference.

For more information contact or John M. Jakicic, Ph.D, Chair and Professor, Department of Health and Physical Activity, Director, Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center, University of Pittsburgh

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