Staying Motivated to Exercise During the Holidays


True or False? Most Americans gain weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Answer:  True (but the amount of weight we gain may surprise you!)

You have probably read or heard media reports proclaiming that the average person is likely to gain five, eight, or even ten pounds during the holiday season. If so, here’s some great news: those predictions are greatly exaggerated! In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the majority of the 200 study participants gained an average of just .37 kg (less than one pound) over a six-week holiday period. Fewer than 10 percent of the participants gained five pounds or more.

So…should we dismiss holiday weight gain as nothing to be concerned about? Well, not exactly. The study also found that most participants’ holiday weight gain was never lost after the holidays. The investigators noted that because holiday weight gain occurs year after year, it adds up to an increase in body weight over time. Perhaps the most useful finding of the study was the fact that those who reported being much less active during the holidays were the ones who gained the most weight. That’s information we can use!

According to the National Council on Strength and Fitness, “The normal caloric mediator for adults is physical activity. When the caloric balance is thrown off, weight gain is the common outcome.” During the holidays, caloric balance is thrown off by an abundance of high-calorie goodies, heightened stress (which triggers snacking for many people), and an increase in alcohol consumption, which elevates ghrelin, the hunger-stimulating hormone.

Because the holiday season stacks the deck toward weight gain, many health promotion and exercise professionals now recommend that people do not focus on weight loss during the holidays. Instead, they suggest people just focus on simply maintaining their current weight. The most effective tool for maintaining weight during the holidays is—you guessed it—exercise!

You can use a calendar as a visual planning tool to keep yourself moving in spite of a hectic holiday schedule. Here’s how:

Step 1. Block out your cheat days ahead of time. Cheat days are the days you designate in advance as days when you will not exercise. For many people, these will be days such as Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, or travel days.

Step 2. Schedule time to exercise on your non-cheat days. A calendar helps with this because it enables you to plan around office parties, family get-togethers, church programs, and other holiday activities. During the holidays, reward yourself by putting a checkmark on each day you do work out on your designated exercise days. You’ll see at a glance how much exercise you are actually getting.

Step 3. Commit to a “no days off” exercise policy. This is a contract you make with yourself. A “no days off” policy means that on any day you miss a planned workout, you must still do something—a 10-minute walk, climbing your own stairs multiple times, or dancing to music as you clean your house, for example. For self-encouragement, place a different color checkmark on your calendar on the days you keep your “no days off” commitment.

Do you worry that you won’t be able to stick to a “no days off” policy? Consider this: even on your busiest days, you will still have a few minutes of downtime while microwaving your lunch or waiting for an elevator, for example. So, don’t just stand there—move it! If you do calf raises, arm circles, squats, bicep curls, or other “mini” exercises for three minutes ten times throughout the day, you’ll have exercised for 30 minutes. Checkmark earned!

A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain. New England Journal of Medicine, March 2000; 861-867.

Holiday Weight Gain Multifactorial. National Council on Strength and Fitness web site (


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