The tickets are booked, your bags are packed and the office has been notified. You've crossed your t's and dotted your i's in a bid to avoid receiving that bothersome mid-holiday email asking you for details you don't want to be thinking about as you contemplate 2019 and steel your resolve for 2020. You've earned this break, you deserve this time off, maybe you've even worked hard on your body in the run-up to it. But what if you're not going to ring in the new year looking and feeling quite as fit as you thought you'd be?
Winter holidays come with many temptations: marshmallows dipped in steaming mugs of creamy hot chocolate; buttery, cookies and sweets from festive markets; a supersized helping of comforting French fries. Combine these gastronomical indulgences with layered clothing and the extra hours spent in bed, in the warmth, finally at liberty to do nothing, then inevitably, despite your best intentions, you'll come back with a thicker midriff.
Holiday weight is a reality
This is tragically common. A 2016 study, the first of its kind conducted at the University of Georgia, found that adults going on a week-long holiday gained about half a kilo. If you're already overweight, that number is likely to be higher. Worse, that extra weight is tenacious and tends to linger for an average of six weeks. The study also said that most people put on about a kilo a year anyway, so most of us are gaining half our annual allowance – or the price we pay for getting older – every time we go on holiday. All of this adds up to a phenomenon that researchers call "creeping obesity" – gaining small amounts of weight slowly, leading to increased health problems later in life.
The point of this is not to depress you, or make you look at each morsel you put into your mouth with suspicion and fear, but rather to ensure that all the hard work you put into your body year-round – or pre-trip – is not for nothing when you're on a break. Turns out, it's not that difficult to keep the holiday weight off. Yes, it requires some effort, planning and, as always, self-restraint, but it could be easier than you think.
Keep moving and snack healthily
Pooja Makhija, celebrity nutritionist and author of Eat Delete, says people need to reprogramme their brains and eliminate the negative associations between holidays and weight gain. "No matter how many hours you sleep on vacation, you're hopefully a lot more active than you are during your regular, sedentary life. You're moving around so much while sightseeing, shopping, even just going from one place to another," she says. "So unless you're not leaving your bed at all, you're probably clocking in two, three, four times the amount of physical activity you do back home. Then why should you be putting on weight at all?"
The answer, Makhija believes, lies in blood sugar levels going haywire. "What tends to happen is that we don't eat for long durations. By the time we do eat, we're ravenous. Our blood sugar is so low that our brain is incapable of making smart decisions. So we grab the highest calorie foods, with the highest sugar fixes," she says.
The simplest solution is to make sure you eat every two to three hours, choosing healthy cafes and street-food stalls when you can. “You can also carry your own little packs of snacks, such as nuts, roasted seeds and low-fat energy bars, and a big bottle of water in your backpack. Set alarms on your phone to remind you to eat and hydrate every few hours. This way, you won’t be starving by the time you get to a mall or a restaurant, and even if you indulge, you’ll be smart about it – you will be able to exercise control and eat smaller, single portions of desserts and fried food.”
Beware unhealthy airplane food and winter blues
Deanne Panday, Bollywood fitness coach and author of Shut Up And Train!, cautions against starting your break on an unhealthy note. "Even before most of us get to our destinations, we've plied our bodies with lethargy-inducing, unhealthy food at the airport and on the plane. Carry healthy, home-cooked meals for your journey. If you don't start your vacation feeling weighed down and bloated, you're much more likely to spend the rest of it without falling off the fitness wagon," she says.
Many holiday-goers blame the weather for their weight gain and, indeed, when it comes to fitness, 'tis not the season to be jolly. There's a lot of damning research linking weight gain to winter. According to a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports by the University of Alberta, one reason people tend to pile on the kilos in colder climes is the lack of sunlight – our cells don't store as much fat when exposed to the Sun. And there are plenty of papers crediting winter weight gain to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a kind of depression triggered by the shorter days of winter – which typically has people reaching for comfort food and foregoing workouts.
Panday urges to instead think of winter as a wonderful weight-loss opportunity, especially in the UAE. "It's tough to walk around when the Sun is blazing over your head and you're sweating bullets. But there's no excuse not to when it's cooler," she says. "Walk instead of taking cabs on your winter break and at home. Incorporate adventure sports into your itinerary. Build a snowman, go skiing. Carry your shopping bags yourself instead of having them delivered to your room. There's your workout – you've done cardio, weights and exercised all your muscles."
Work out in your room
Another tip is to use the scales in your room. The idea is not to obsessively weigh yourself three times a day, but to check in with your body every few days, so you’re aware of what’s going on with the loss-gain situation.
While Panday admits hitting the hotel gym on a holiday can be “an unreasonable expectation,” fitness trainer Antoni Pecora thinks otherwise. “I’m not saying you need to spend an hour in the gym when you’re on vacation. But 15 to 20 minutes is not an impossible ask.
“You can even exercise in your room, on the floor next to your bed before you head out for the day – a few reps of push-ups, squats, lunges, planks and abdominal exercises. Doing even that much is enough to keep your muscles flexible, so you don’t have to start from square one when you come back. Even better, do it first thing in the morning, because you may not end up doing it if you push it to later in the day. Exercise has the best results when you you’re well-rested and fresh.
"Oh, and most importantly," adds Pecora, "don't destroy the breakfast buffet; it's the worst thing to happen to fitness."