Staying on Track During the Holidays! Yes! It can be done!
As the holidays approach, opportunities for major calorie-fests abound. Not only that, but the vast majority of these are in the afternoon or evening when willpower is at it’s lowest. So how can we stay on track and not undo all our hard work?
The short answer: get up early and exercise before breakfast!
A 2010 groundbreaking study in Belgium used healthy male volunteers and split them into 3 groups: the sedentary group, the group who exercised after breakfast, and the group who exercised before breakfast.
Each group was fed 30% more calories than they needed per day with 50% of the calories coming from fat for 6 weeks. The exercise groups participated in endurance training midmorning 4 days a week. The subjects participated in two 60-minute and two 90-minute sessions of exercise per week that consisted of a combination of running and stationary cycling. Their intensity was monitored to stay moderate: between 70-85% of their maximal heart rate.
Predictably, the group that did not train had an average body weight gain of average 3-3.8 kg (6.6 to 8.4 pounds). Furthermore in just 6 weeks they had developed insulin resistance, decreased glucose tolerance, and had gained unhealthy fat cells in their muscles.
The exercisers who had breakfast:
The group that trained but had eaten before the workout also gained weight; on average 1.4-1.8 kg (3-4 pounds) and to a lesser extent also experienced insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.
BEST RESULTS: the exercisers who fasted before their morning workout:
The group who fasted before their workout gained almost no weight (on average 0.7-1.1 kg. (1.5-2.4 pounds). They showed no increase in insulin resistance or changes in glucose tolerance.
Peter Hespel, one of the authors of the study, and a professor in the Research Center for Exercise and Health at Catholic University Leuvin in Belgium, remarked that this study does not cover weight loss, but the results are encouraging and could certainly be employed for weight loss. “The optimal strategy to prevent increases in body weight is obviously to combine a healthy, well-balanced diet with a physically active lifestyle,” he said. But “we demonstrated that early-morning exercise in the fasted state is more potent than an identical amount of exercise in the fed state” for maintaining body weight.
Keep in mind that these 3 groups ate 30% more calories than they needed DAILY with a diet of 50% fat. Most of us do not have such a heavy social calendar that we will be tempted to eat that much food daily between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. By employing the strategy of working out before breakfast when needed (i.e. after a day of overindulging) we can avoid the unhealthy affects of weight gain as well as the weight gain itself. Not only that, but if other habits such as consistent workouts and healthy eating stay fairly stable, continued weight loss is definitely within your reach during the holidays!
Something to Keep in Mind: Performance vs. Health
This study did not track performance. Who performed better? Those who ate breakfast before their endurance session or those who exercised in the fasted state? Their object was to measure if fasted cardio had an impact weight gain, insulin resistance, glucose tolerance and other chemical physiological biomarkers of weight gain by employing a hyper-caloric diet rich in fat. The take away here is that you have the ability to regulate your health during periods of over-indulgence. A healthy LIFESTYLE should be paramount; overindulging obviously should not be a daily occurrence.
The research regarding performance is very clear. Food is fuel. If you are well fueled, your performance will be optimal. If you over-indulge the day before and have a 10K, triathlon, or road race the next day, you would still benefit from fueling your workout with pre-performance calories. Readily available glucose is critical for optimal performance-based workouts, races, or competitions.
Celebrations and festivities are part of a healthy, happy life. Food has meaning; it evokes memories, gathers people together, forms familial and friendship bonds; it is so much more than simply calories. Staying on track during the holidays is within reach without having to have super-human willpower. Schedule in your workouts: aim for at least 4 per week. Make healthy eating choices, and when you feel that you have gotten off-track, get up, get out, and get in that cardio first thing!
Good news for us all! See you at the gym!
 Training in the fasted state improves glucose tolerance during fat-rich diet. Van Proeyen, Szulfolk, Hespel, et al.