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Experts say a new exercise routine is one way to break the holiday weight gain cycle. PixelsEffect/Getty Images
  • Experts say this COVID-19 holiday season might be an opportunity to change the way you eat and exercise this time of year.
  • They recommend you cook healthy foods as well as look for new ways to exercise.
  • Experts add that taking care of your mental health is also important, so you should focus on positive aspects of the holiday season.

Worried about gaining weight this COVID-19 holiday season?

Fret not.

Experts say this pandemic December may be a perfect opportunity to break the holiday weight gain cycle.

They say the fact that traditions such as office parties, cookie swaps, and even holiday dinners are for the most part on hold presents an opportunity for change.

It’s a chance, nutritionists say, to tweak things toward a healthier diet and lifestyle.

“2020’s circumstances do present a golden opportunity for people to conveniently practice healthy living as the world’s usual distractions are currently hard to reach,” Brandon Nichols, NMAS, a personal trainer at The Fitness Tribe, told Healthline.

Nichols said he believes there’s no wrong time to make a move toward better health and fitness.

That means that while many think “the holidays won’t work,” they can with the right steps. And this year could be easier without those distractions, he said.

How does a person make this holiday season a healthy time of year?

Here’s how experts weighed in.

First off, as much as most of us perceive that we gain lots of weight this time of year, the truth may be otherwise.

According to 2016 research, people in the United States gain slightly more than a pound, on average, during the Christmas season.

Studies done in previous years found similar results.

Part of the challenge is how we feel.

“It’s important to distinguish between weight gain due to an increase in body fat versus temporary bloating,” said Kelli McGrane, RD, a nutritionist working with the fitness app Lose It, as well as a nutrition writer for Healthline.

“Many holiday foods are higher in sodium, and we may not be drinking as much water,” she told Healthline. “So, it’s not uncommon for water weight to be behind the jump in the scale the morning after a celebration.”


Consider skipping your daily weigh-in for the holidays.

And when you feel bloated, drink more water and get some exercise.

Outdoor sports such as cycling and hiking as well as golf saw an increase during the 2020 pandemic summer.

Experts say winter doesn’t need to be different.

Finding a new way to move — or just setting up a regular schedule of activity in some way — could be a great gift to yourself, according to Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, who touches on the topic in her podcast Sound Bites.

“Move your body for fun, not for weight loss,” Dobbins told Healthline. “Do it for stress management, fresh air, for fun.”

How to stick with it?

“Make it part of your holiday (and beyond) routine,” Dobbins said. “An after meal walk with a friend or alone can be great.”

So, too, can a regular family bike ride, a weekly hike, and even a dance party in your living room.

In this unusual year, it may be natural to lean toward traditions we can still take part in when so many are at arm’s length.

But how we embrace that in a healthy way comes down to considering how important something is to you and, when you can, tweaking things for the better.

“Ask yourself: Is it really important for me to have something normal or traditional?” said Dobbins. “Or, could you take a family favorite and lighten it up?”

It’s important, she added, for that effort to be fun.

“For some, cooking and baking and finding new ways is fun,” she said.

In other words, take the “bake fresh bread” fad of last spring’s lockdown and tweak it into a healthier favorite holiday food challenge.

It is important, too, Dobbins said, that you not deny yourself the treats that make the holidays special.

“Find out what works for you in a way that does not make you feel deprived,” she said.

If you can, choose traditional treats that you can have around the house without going overboard. But if you want something special, go ahead and indulge.

However, McGrane said, be careful not to overeat.

“Make only your favorite baked goods,” she said. “Pick just one or two favorite holiday recipes, or make half-batches.”

“Also keep in mind that cookie dough generally freezes really well. So, if you can’t easily halve your recipe, store half of your dough in the freezer to bake later in the year,” McGrane recommended.

And what of that tradition of noshing on leftovers?

Cesar Sauza, RD, a registered dietitian with AltaMed Health Services, suggests rethinking how you enjoy them.

“Use the components of leftovers as part of your meal prep for the next few days,” Sauza told Healthline. “We don’t need to have a holiday meal for 5 straight days. However, the leftover turkey or chicken could be used for different dinners each day. Leftover side dishes can be added with protein to create a new main dish.”

“Little things do add up. Don’t discount them,” Dobbins said. “I’m talking about the positive little things.”

Those wanting to lose or maintain weight tend to think in an all-or-nothing mode, she said, plunging them into despair should they eat something or do something they view as not positive toward that effort.

Rather, she said, we should all do little things and celebrate them.

“Trust that every small choice helps,” she said. “Have that piece of pie but skip the last bite. One less bite is a positive.”

Another “little thing” can be better monitoring of liquid consumption choices, said Sauza.

“Avoid drinking your calories,” Sauza said. “Alcohol, hot chocolate, coffee, or other dessert drinks contribute a high number of empty calories during the holidays. Avoiding (or limiting) these drinks alone could be the difference between gaining or not gaining weight.”

So too can drinking water between higher calories items you eat.

So how does one stay mentally healthy while trying to restrict typical activities?

Dobbins suggests that rather than look at maintaining or losing weight this holiday season as stressful, try to reframe it as a gift to yourself.

“Attach a different meaning to your weight management,” she said.

She suggests thinking about what it feels like to move better, feel better, sleep better, wear clothes you like, and other positive attributes.

“When you really focus on the why, it clicks,” she said.

And should you falter? Give yourself a break.

“2020 should bring less parties and temptations, but it also brings more stress, boredom, and uncertainty, all of which could lead to emotional eating and decreased motivation to be active,” Sauza said.

“We should all be going outside and doing something active — for physical health but even more importantly for mental health,” he said. “A simple walk around your neighborhood could be the difference that stops you from emotional eating at home. I encourage all families to plan daily activities (preferably outside if possible). This is safe as long as you wear a mask and practice social distancing.”

Sauza also thinks that done correctly, this holiday is a rare chance to reset your holiday health choices for good.

“For many of us, we may never have an opportunity like this for the rest of our lives, a time in which our typical hectic lives have actually slowed down,” he said.

“At the end of all this, there will be those people that took advantage and improved themselves. In my opinion, this rare opportunity is the silver lining of 2020,” he added.