No matter how good your intentions are heading into the holiday season, it can be easy to slip into unhealthy eating patterns as soon as the cookie platters start appearing. And when you’re already frazzled enough thinking about buying gifts, decking the halls, and making it to every event, the stress of gaining weight is the last thing you need.
The best strategy for dealing with all that food temptation might surprise you. Instead of worrying about what you’re eating, you’re better off switching your focus to exercise, says Torey Armul, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. “Diet is most important for weight loss, but exercise is most critical for keeping weight off during the long term,” she says.
After all, scheduling more physical activity is probably easier than trying to resist treat your friends and coworkers offer. By making a point of working out, you can indulge in your seasonal favorites pressure free, without gaining a belly the size of Santa’s.
“It does allow some wiggle room with calories, so you might not have to be quite as strict as if you were focusing on diet alone,” says Armul. “Physical activity reduces guilt if you overeat or have a holiday party later in the day.” (This study reveals how much weight people gain during the holidays.)
Of course exercise helps negate the indulgent foods you’ll be eating, but it also revs up your metabolism to keep you torching calories even after you’ve left the gym. You’ll burn fat while building muscle, which burns more calories than body fat does, even at rest. “That’s one of the best things,” says Armul. “It’s important for metabolism and keeping motivation high into the New Year.”
About 30 minutes of physical activity four or five days a week should be enough to stay in a health-minded routine while navigating the holiday eating scene. “It doesn’t need to be long, intense trips to the gym, but just something to keep the habit alive,” says Armul. (Check out these secrets of women who manage to work out every day.)
Fit in cardio like walking or playing basketball two or three days a week to keep your heart rate pumping, but don’t neglect strength training. Not only does it help boost metabolism, but you also will be less likely to devour every Christmas cookie in sight when you’re done. “Strength training doesn’t increase appetite as much as cardio,” says Armul. “You can get a great workout and increase metabolic rate, but you don’t have that intense hunger after a workout like with running.”
And you don’t have to be fit to get started. Here are 25 simple tips to start exercising when you’re overweight.