Moderation key to keeping holiday weight gain at bay, experts say

Doug Gulasy
| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 11:38 a.m.

In the words of a popular song, the holiday season is “the most wonderful time of the year.”

In trainer Jason Stowell's mind, it's one of the most stressful because it often leads to poor nutritional choices.

“Between all the shopping, all the cooking (and) seeing extended family you may care for or may not care for, we tend to stress out,” said Stowell, fitness sales and wellness director at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. “And so what happens when we stress out? Generally, we reach for something to eat.”

The holiday season that begins in late November with Thanksgiving and ends with the New Year carries images of weight gain thanks to too much pumpkin pie and other high-calorie foods.

The average holiday weight gain is about one pound per adult, according to studies from the past decade, but most adults don't lose that pound and overweight people tend to gain more.

Stowell estimated 80 percent of a person's overall fitness level comes down to diet.

“The holidays equal more food,” said Dr. Timothy Gaul, a family physician specializing in osteopathic medicine and vice president for medical affairs at UPMC East. “That makes it more difficult for (people) to stay motivated to keep their weight down” but it's important to stay diligent.

People shouldn't treat the holiday season differently from other times, Gaul said. “If you're getting into habits and disciplines, you're trying to make those good decisions whether it's Christmas Day or it's the middle of June,” he said.

A typical problem is that some people treat the holidays as a full month, instead of a few days during that month-long period. Others feel guilty about eating a big meal, and try to make up for it either before or after the holiday.

Neither approach is advisable, said Danielle Ross, a trainer at the Allegheny Health Network's Club Allegheny.

“You don't want to overdo it, (and) you don't want to underdo it,” she said, advising that people exercise “three days on, two days off. Don't stop just because you're ready for turkey.”

Weather over the holidays often makes exercising outdoors more difficult. Stowell said some people don't enjoy a gym atmosphere, which takes away some options.

But other opportunities exist. Cathy Muscato, director of the Bethel Park Community Center, said usage of the recreational facility and the exercise classes it offers jumps beginning in the fall. Several Western Pennsylvania communities have similar facilities.

Gaul said even household chores — bringing in firewood, shoveling snow and taking walks with your dog or family — could work as exercises.

Indoor options include gyms and YMCAs, and even mall walking. UPMC kicked off a mall-walking program this week at Monroeville Mall, and will hold monthly walking events throughout the year.

Outdoor exercise holds tangible benefits because exposure to light helps a person's mood, vitality and Vitamin D levels, Gaul said.

Venture Outdoors, a nonprofit, holds outdoor events throughout the fall and winter in Western Pennsylvania, including hikes each weekend. It offers snowshoeing expeditions and outdoor exercises for all skill levels.

“Any time you see people outside, they're happy,” said Lora Woodward, program director at Venture Outdoors. “It's fairly hard to be angry when you're outside because it's such a soothing environment.”

Stowell said the key to surviving the season without weight gain is balance and moderation.

“Don't get down on yourself if you miss a workout, if you eat a little bit extra food (or) if you have a glass of wine at dinner on Thanksgiving,” he said. “Enjoy your family and friends. Fitness is something we do for the rest of our lives. It's not something we do for today or next week. At some point, we all fall off the horse.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or via email at

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