Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Are You Hibernating?

The days are shorter and the cold weather seems to have the effect of increasing one’s appetite.  People can easily put on up to an unwanted five to seven pounds every winter.  Unfortunately, many of us do!

People always complain about putting on weight in the winter, but does cold weather really make you fatter.  Apparently, the answer to that question is yes.

One of the reasons is that we are covered up in the winter … coats, jackets, and layers upon layers of clothing so we’re all a bit less self-conscious about our bodies and there is no accountability.  Out of sight – out of mind?  People tend to stay on diets and work out more diligently when the spring and summer roll around.

Some people believe out bodies hold on to fat in order to stay warm but let’s face it – most people aren’t roughing it outside all day and night in freezing temperatures.  So for the rest of us, it’s not the actual cold weather that makes us fatter; it’s the cold weather that causes us to modify out lifestyles and that is what contributes to the bigger numbers on the scale.

A pedometer research study conducted by the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise uncovered a huge difference in the number of steps taken between the winter and summer seasons.
              7616 steps per day in the summer
              6293 steps per day in the fall
              5304 steps per day in the winter, and
              5850 steps per day in the spring.

That’s almost 2500 less steps per day, by the average person, between summer and winter.  Most people blame Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s feasts but in reality it is less winter activity that also contribute to the holiday pounds.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) has been studied at length and it is more than just the “winter blues” but an actual type of clinical depression.  SAD occurs during the short days and long nights of winter and fall, when there is less sunlight and colder temperatures.  Symptoms can often include cravings for specific foods, a loss of energy, hopelessness and oversleeping.  Obviously these types of symptoms can contribute to weight gain.  When we are depressed we unconsciously turn to carbs to deliver a quick hit of the feel-good chemical serotonin.  From October through early March there are people who go into “hibernating depression”.

One school of thought is that cold temperatures influence weight gain on a metabolic level not just by wanting to eat more.  Exposure to cold temperatures causes a shivering thermogenesis, which means there’s an increase in metabolism to produce more heat and … heat production by the body equals calories burned.  But hold on just a sec before you run to turn off the heat in your house or join a daily polar bear swim.  Despite the fact that there are some weight loss gurus who recommend it, it really doesn’t pan out in the real world of weight loss results.  However, as tempting as it is to burrow under your flannel sheets when it gets cold out don’t get too cozy.  There is a lot to be said for being a comfortably cool during the night.  Being too warm can actually keep you from nodding off, which can spell bad news for your weight.  I’ve mentioned this numerous times before, but stress it here again … people who get less than 5 hours of sleep are 50% more likely to be obese than those who sleep 7 to 9 hours a night.  But what does your comforter have to do with it?  Science shows that you enter and get your best sleep when your core body temperature drops.  If your body is too warm, heat dumping cannot occur normally, making it difficult to go to sleep.  Even in temperature it all about moderation.

So what does really work to help prevent the dreaded winter weight gain?

  1. Don’t underestimate daily tasks!  A dose of vigorous housework can actually burn up more
    calories than going to the gym.  When its cold and dark outdoor activities instantly lose their appeal and the comfort of home beckons, so crank up your favourite music and swing you hips behind the vacuum cleaner.  Vigorous dusting, mopping and vacuuming can burn up to 240 calories in one hour – the equivalent of about thirty minutes of jogging.  Housework tones arm and leg muscles and increases our heart beat making it a good all-round cardiovascular exercise.  Plus, there is the added bonus of having your housework done in the winter so there is no spring cleaning … you can actually get out and enjoy the nice weather when it arrives!  Be less efficient in the kitchen.  If you are cooking dinner, instead of gathering all your ingredients in one place, walk around your kitchen, stretching for, say, that bowl on the top shelf, and going back and forth between the pantry and the stove.  Making daily tasks a little more “sweat worthy” helps you to stay trim in the winter.

  1. Take a lunch break! We are more likely to gain weight at work during the cold winter months
    because we tend to eat at our desks more often – and are less likely to venture outside.  Anything that’s not sedentary will increase you metabolic rate, so it’s well worth popping outside for a stretch and a breath of fresh air.  In fact, an average fifteen-minute walk during your lunch hour amounts to three hundred calories per week.  If this doesn’t sound like enough, instead of going to the gym at night, why not go at lunchtime?  A fifteen-minute lunchtime jog three times a week is the equivalent to 700 calories a week.  This maintains a fitness routine and leaves your evening free.
  1. Walk to work!  Leave the house earlier than usual and walk to work.  If this is too far, walk part of the way by getting off the bus or train early.  A comfortable stroll burns five calories per minute.  Walking has been shown by several studies to help reduce the risk of strokes.  Other studies show that regular walking can help reverse the effects of aging.

  1. Create a realistic easting strategy for the holidays!  You may think that the holidays end on January first, but you still have to face Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day and even St. Patrick’s Day before spring rolls around.  Diving head-first into the holiday feasting without a game plan is a sure fire way to put on a few pounds.  Be mindful of your food and of the moment you are enjoying it.

  1. Don’t let comfort food make you uncomfortable in your clothes!  Eating that gooey macaroni and cheese, or freshly baked cookie passes the time, warms your body, and makes the dreary winter months more tolerable.  Although comfort food may be good for the soul … few are friendly to your waistline.  Instead of turning to food to lose the winter blues, stop and think about what’s getting your down in the first place.  Are you feeling cold?  Warm up with a cup of hot tea (its calorie free) or cuddle up under a big fluffy blanket.  Is the weather making you stir crazy?  Call up a friend and do something active together to get out of the house and keep your blood pumping.  Identifying WHY you want eat will make it easier to take a step back and make a healthier choice.  If you really do not want to give up your favourite winter comfort foods then remember “everything in moderation”.  Tweak your recipes and make your favourites with low-fat milk and cheese whenever possible and substitute healthier cooking methods, like baking instead of frying.  Give yourself permission to enjoy a small serving and remind yourself that it will be there again later is you want it – there’s no need to eat the whole casserole in one sitting.

  1. Rethink your winter drinks!  From October through January, high calorie seasonal drinks such as spiced lattes, hot chocolate and warm apple cider flood restaurant menus.  They can lure you in with their tempting festive names and adorable whipped cream crowns, but look out!!  Some medium-sized drinks can clock in at 500 calories – or more – if you order the larger sizes.  To lighten up a seasonal drink, enjoy the smallest size with skim milk, sugar free syrup, and light (or no) whipped cream.
  1. Avoid the winter eating trap!  Your favourite fresh produce – berries, tomatoes, zucchini – may not
    be in season for another few months, but that doesn't mean your should fee on meat and potatoes until spring.  People who eat 2.7 servings of veggies a day were more likely to have a lower BMI 10 years later, so it’s important to get your greens year-round.  Luckily, there are plenty of winter veggies worth mixing in your diet.  For starters, include cauliflower (1 cup raw = 25 calories) and spaghetti squash (1 cup = 42 calories).  Like all vegetables, they’re high in water content and low in calories, so you’ll feel full, not fat.  And if you can get over your childhood fears, add Brussels sprouts to your menu.  For only 56 calories, a cup of the vegetable delivers 4 grams of belly-fat fighting fiber and almost your entire day’s worth of vitamin C.

  1. Stop bingeing out of boredom!  With the colder temperatures and extreme weather conditions, you may find yourself cooped up in the house more often in the winter than during other times of the year.  Many people turn to food when that are bored, which makes sense; it tastes good, gives you something to do, and takes your mind off of stressors.  However, eating might not be the most favorable winter pastime for you if you want to fit into your swimsuit when the summer finally rolls around.  Try some fun activities to distract you from the kitchen:
    1. Start turning your holiday photos into a fun scrapbook for your family to enjoy.
    2. Take up knitting or crocheting or anything else that will keep your hands busy – it passes the time and is practical too.
    3. Join an online or in-person book club, or create one with your friends.
    4. Join a site such as and start doing family research.
    5. Take one or more of the free on-line courses many colleges and universities offer.
    6. Check out your local libraries for various lectures and clubs … they are informative, a great way to meet people and best of all … FREE.
    7. Make an inspiration board to remind you of your healthy living goals.  Cut pictures and quotes from magazines and glue them onto a piece of poster board to hang in a place where you will see it every day. 
    8. If that’s too public for you, make an ongoing motivational scrapbook to help you focus on your goals and keep your hands busy whenever you feel like mindlessly snacking.
    9. Write a blog!

  1. Be mindful of your body’s signals!  Winter is a busy time and personal health of often the first thing to get lost in the shuffle.  Your hunger and fullness cues get thrown out of whack over the food-centric parties, and you’re stressed from buying gifts, attending gatherings and dealing with bad weather.  It is important to notice when you lose track of how you’re feeling, as it can cause you to lose focus on your healthy lifestyle efforts.  There are a few simple things you can do to keep yourself accountable for your health during the winter.

    1. Step on the scale!  Keeping an eye on your weight can help you stop major gains.
    2. Keep tabs on how your clothes are fitting!  In the colder months, we lounge at home more often, so its “hello elastic-waist-sweatpants”, we wear more layers and chunky sweaters to keep warm.  Although these clothes are functional for the weather, they don’t allow you to see subtle changes in your body.  It’s easier to see small gains during the warmer months when you’re wearing thinner layers or sporting a bathing suit.  During the winter, try on some of your warm-weather clothes every few weeks to make sure they still fit and to monitor any changes in your body.  That way there will be no surprises when spring hits!
    3. Combat stress!  When you find yourself getting consumed with winter stress and turning to unhealthy habits, stop what you’re doing for a few minutes and do a mental check-in.  What are you thinking about?  How does your body feel?  What do you really need right now?  Sometimes you’ll find that you may think you’re hungry, but are actually dehydrated due to the drier winter environments.  Or, you may realize that your body is craving movement more than that extra slice of pie.  By making an effort to be in tune with yourself you will be more likely to stick with your healthy intentions.

  1. Don’t let the flu sabotage your fitness! Nothing derails your good intentions as fast as getting sick
    – especially if you are already looking for an excuse to skip the gym – and it turns out that the sniffles themselves may make you pack on pounds.  Research shows that catching a cold may triple your weight gain.  Evidence shows that catching a bug increases the number of glucose receptors on your fat cells, causing them to grow bigger in size and number and can saddle you with an extra 35 pounds of fat over a lifetime.  Although it’s inevitable that you will get sick at some point, there are ways to reduce your chances of it happening:

    1. Wash your hands as often as your can, especially when someone in your household is sick.  Hand sanitizer is not as effective, but will work in a pinch if there is no soap and water available.
    2. Avoid touching the mucous membranes of your eyes, nose and mouth with your bare hands.  Touching your face is one of the easiest ways for germs to get into your body.
    3. Regularly disinfect the most used surfaces and items in your home.  Make sure these include doorknobs, countertops and TV remotes.
    4. Keep your immune system and metabolism revved to war off illness.  Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, exercise regularly and drink plenty of water throughout the day.
    5. Go outside and get some fresh air whenever possible.  Staying inside too long, especially with other people, is a recipe for multiplying germs.

So, enjoy as much of the winter as you can … stay warm when it’s appropriate … stay cool when it’s appropriate … keep your hands out of the cookie jar … make wise choices and most importantly, stay healthy – that’s always appropriate!  

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