Treating yourself without blowing your regime altogether

It is not unusual to come to your holiday and believe you need a well-deserved break, not only from work or study but from your usual exercise and diet regime. This is understandable. That said, it is important that diet and exercise are not completely forgotten when you go on holidays.

There is evidence to suggest that eating and exercising habits during the holiday period contribute substantially to the overweight and obesity epidemic in developed countries. The major reasons behind these weight changes are fairly self-explanatory. The holidays are unstructured compared to a working week, and more time is spent sleeping in, dining out, partying and drinking, which leaves little time and energy for exercise. Combined with the excess calorie intake from food and alcohol, this inevitably leads to weight gain and the associated negative health outcomes.

Importantly, this trend also occurs in children, and may be contributing the rise of childhood obesity and health problems.

It is very important to be aware, for yourself and for your children, of the health risks associated with weight gain and how to avoid holiday weight gain. This is not to say you need to wake up at 6am to do weights at the gym or completely avoid your favourite foods. Exercise and dietary regimes can be altered for the short holiday periods, but it’s best to work out a diet and exercise regime that doesn’t lead to weight gain. If you do gain weight over the holidays, it’s important to consciously try to lose the weight when you go back to work.

How relevant is weight gain over the holidays?

Diet and exercise during holidaysThroughout adulthood we tend to put on weight. While slight weight increases are natural, moderate weight gain can have serious health consequences and should be actively prevented. It has been found that the weight we put on during our holidays contributes heavily to the increase as we age. Adults put on as much to 500% more weight during their holidays compared to when working.

The weight gain may not seem significant after a one-week holiday, but after years these slight increases will “weigh-up”. Studies have shown that people who put on 0.48 kg during their holiday are unlikely to actively lose the weight once they return to work. Most people do not think that half a kilo each holiday will add up to a steady increase in weight over adulthood.

Studies have identified that there are some people and times of the year during which holiday weight gain is more likely. People who are already overweight or have been overweight in the past are more vulnerable to weight gain over the holidays than those in the healthy weight range. Furthermore, when holidays are taken in colder environments or during the winter, there is an increased prevalence of weight gain.

People who are able to maintain their normal exercise regime and dietary regime during their holiday will have more success in managing their weight. This is especially important for people considered to be at higher risk of putting on weight, such as somebody who is already overweight and taking their holidays for a month during winter.

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If you believe you may be susceptible to weight gain over your holiday, you will benefit from planning an exercise routine for your holiday. Your doctor and local gym will be able to help you organise a program that you can maintain during your holiday.

Children and school holidays

Diet and exercise during holidaysIt is not only adults who tend to put on weight during holidays. Studies have identified that this trend extends to children as young as 6 and 7 years old. One study monitored students’ body mass index (BMI) over the year and found that there was a significant increase in BMI over the holiday period compared to during the school term. This finding was especially noted in children who were already overweight.

Similarly to in adults, this weight gain in children is suggested to be due to the breakdown of “routine” that occurs during the holidays. It is relatively easy to regulate children’s behaviour while at school by restricting the times of the day when they eat and allocating regular time for sport. Once children leave school, they have more freedom to indulge in sedentary activities, such as watching TV or playing on the computer, and are not necessarily encouraged to participate in sporting activities. Excessive snacking is also likely to be increased indoors and at home compared to during the school day.

Normally, a child’s weight will change over the year, with slight increases during winter which are then lost during summer. This means that children maintain relatively the same weight (not taking into account normal child growth) at a given time in the year. In obese children, this pattern is not observed.  Obese children put on weight during the summer school break, and do not lose it at other times of the year. Nutritionists have suggested that this abnormal pattern may disrupt weight rhythms, which further contributes to obesity in children.

Parent involvement in children’s nutrition and physical activity is extremely important and will help improve habits for children at home. Parents should encourage their children to get involved in after-school sporting activities or holiday sport programs, and to spend more time playing active games outside. TV and video games should be restricted to about an hour a day, perhaps in the middle of the day when it is too hot to play outside. Parents should also monitor very carefully what their children are eating and how often they are eating. Developing an eating routine for the holidays, similar to the school day routine, will help to keep them healthy. Of course, treats during the holiday are fine, as long as they are balanced with lots of healthy food, water and exercise!

Self-monitoring during the holidays

Strict self-monitoring is one way that people can avoid weight gain during their holidays. Self-monitoring involves regularly and diligently monitoring how much you are eating, drinking and exercising. To avoid weight gain, make sure your energy intake is not more than your energy expenditure. Both intake and expenditure may change during holidays compared to work days, and on different days of a holiday.

A study found that people who consistently monitored how much they ate and exercised during their holidays were able to maintain their weight or even lose weight.

Another study found that self-monitoring was even more effective when individuals monitoring their weight were given encouragement and support from a health professional during their holiday. A group of obese people received phone calls and daily mailings from healthcare professionals while they were on holidays, encouraging them to exercise and reminding them to monitor their daily energy intake. Compared to a group of obese people who monitored themselves without such support, the obese people who had regular reminders from health professionals gained less weight.

While it may not always be feasible to receive this kind of aid from healthcare programs, you can set up a system of your own. Ask your friends and family to help you monitor yourself during the holidays. Perhaps you can pair up with a friend and provide each other encouragement and support through phone calls and meetings.

Recreational holidays

Diet and exercise during holidaysHolidays that involve hiking, skiing, climbing and other strenuous activities are popular choices for Australians. Recreational holidays have been associated with positive effects on fitness, recreational ability, mood, social esteem and confidence. People who engage in recreational activities during their holidays feel healthier, and this actually contributes to staying healthy once back at work.

Bear in mind that there may be health risks involved with recreational holidays if you’re not fit and your body is not used to exercising. If this is you, be sure to see a doctor before planning a recreational holiday. Activities such as hiking and skiing, even at low intensity, will increase the heart and metabolic rate. This is good for your health if you are fit, but if you’re unfit, sudden increases in heart rate can be dangerous. This is especially true if you are holidaying at a high altitude.

If you have been inactive for over 6 months, it is wise to seek advice form a medical professional, especially if you have or have had any cardiovascular (heart), muscular or weight problems. A doctor, physiotherapist or sports trainer will be able to assess your current fitness level and help you plan a fitness program that will allow you to physically prepare for your trip.

Exercise options over the holidays

In order to stay motivated to exercise in the holidays,  it may be useful to mix up your usual exercise regime and change your exercise goals. For example, if your usual goal is to build muscle and lose weight, perhaps during holidays a more appropriate goal would be to simply keep active.

Holidays are a time for family and friends, so try to plan fun exercise sessions the whole family can enjoy. You may like to check out community exercise facilities or find a spot to go for walks after lunch.

Taking a holiday from exercise

Diet and exercise during holidaysGenerally, it is wise to do some exercise in your holidays. However, for serious athletes and sport enthusiasts, the opposite may be true. Athletes can do too much exercise (overtraining), especially coming to the end of the season. For people who usually train professionally every day, a six-week break at the end of a season is necessary for the body to recuperate and prepare for the next season.

For example, professional dancers who take a break over summer show increased flexibility, leg strength and fitness when they get back to training, compared to those who do not take the break. Taking a break also reduces the risk of injuries, poor performance and illness the next season.

Eating tips for the holidays

In a society where overweight and obesity has become an epidemic, we need to think very carefully about the foods we eat and how much of them we are eating. While “kilojoule-counting” can take the pleasure out of eating, you need to know how much energy is contained in the food you eat, in order to ensure you don’t eat too many calories. This is particularly important if you are already overweight or find it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

This is not to say that all “bad” foods should be totally avoided, but they should be well thought out. Make decisions about which are your favourite treats and “budget” them into your daily energy limits. You can ask your doctor, a dietitian or nutritionist to help you work out how much you should be eating and what foods will give you enough energy without filling you with sugar and fats. And remember, how much you eat needs to be balanced against how much you exercise. If you overindulge one day, try also doing a bit of extra exercise to account for the weight gain.

The following are tips for avoiding overindulging (not only during your holidays, but all year round):

  1. Eat slowly: Take your time to recheck your appetite during a meal. It takes a few minutes for your brain to register the “full” signal from your stomach. In this time, second helpings may already be piled on a plate. You can better monitor your appetite by eating slowly and drinking water between mouthfuls.
  2. Avoid the food table: If you are prone to recreational eating, the temptation of snacking at parties is heightened by standing next to the food table. You should stand away from where snacks are served, and perhaps chew gum in order to fight the temptation.
  3. Eat before partying: Going to a party absolutely starving is a recipe for overindulging. The best pre-party food involves snacks that are high in protein and complex carbohydrates (low GI foods). This will help maintain a full feeling. It’s also wise to fill up on something healthy before you do your grocery shopping.
  4. Eat before drinking: Alcohol should be avoided on an empty stomach. Not only will you feel hungrier when you have alcohol, but you may also lose your ability to control your energy intake, a combination for overindulgence. Alcohol is also very high in calories, so drinking alcoholic beverages can contribute a considerable amount to your daily calorie intake.
  5. Serve vegies first: Making sure your plate is filled up with vegetables will not only ensure that the meal stays relatively healthy, but it is also a great way of filling up.

Exercise tips for the holidays

  • Diet and exercise during holidaysGo for variety and fun: Mix up your usual exercise regime with fun holiday exercise, for example enjoying the great outdoors, hitting the dance floor at a party, or spending active time with the kids;
  • Change your goals: Make sure your exercise goals are realistic for the holiday period. For example, if your usual goal is to build muscle and lose weight, perhaps during holidays a more appropriate goal would be to simply keep active and avoid gaining weight;
  • Keep active: Not only will this help you keep motivated during the holidays, it will make restarting work and your usual exercise regime less daunting;
  • Be prepared: Make a physical activity plan for your holiday;
  • Avoid winter blues: Be especially careful of weight gain during cold holidays, as holidays taken in colder environments or during the winter are associated with an increased risk of weight gain;
  • Don’t have too much variety: Try to maintain your normal exercise routine as much as possible. People who are able to maintain their normal exercise regime and dietary regime during their holiday will have more success in managing their weight;
  • Child’s play: Be aware that children also have a tendency to gain weight during holidays from school, so be involved in your child’s exercise and eating over the holidays. Parent involvement is thought to help kids make healthy choices;
  • Turn off the TV: Give children plenty of ideas for active recreational pursuits so that they don’t spend too much sedentary time watching TV or playing on the computer;
  • Go outside: Keeping kids outdoors will not only help them burn energy, it may also reduce the amount of energy they consume because they are less likely to snack;
  • Watch yourself: Monitor how much you eat and exercise during the holidays. People who consistently monitor these behaviours in the holidays are more likely to maintain or even lose weight;
  • Be adventurous: Plan a recreational holidays such as hiking or skiing, as these types of holidays tend to have a positive effect on fitness;
  • Check-up: Prepare your body for a recreational holiday by starting to exercise well before the holiday and seeing your doctor for a fitness check;
  • Every bit counts: Don’t ignore weight gain when you get back to work, even if you’ve only gained a small amount of weight (e.g. half a kilo). If you do not lose that weight, you’ll be starting your next holiday half a kilo heavier. Over time, if you gain half a kilo every holiday and fail to lose it once you get back to work, you could gain a significant amount of weight.

More information

For more information on fitness and exercise, including preparing for exercise, exercise and nutrition, exercise and health conditions and useful videos, see Fitness
For more information on nutrition, including types of food, nutrition and health conditions, diets, recipes and useful videos, see Nutrition



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