Fitness experts weigh in on avoiding the seasonal bulge

Originally Published December 16, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 14, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Personal trainer Brian Styles, right, watches Jade Webb do leg presses at Prevail Fitness in Cabot.

Nothing says “Happy holidays” like needing to loosen a belt notch or two.

Winter gatherings bring friends and family with steaming casseroles, boozy punches and never-ending piles of cookies. It is enough to make even the most dedicated gym rat surrender to the idea of “I’ll wait until the new year.”

Cabot High School senior Jade Gibbs has it especially hard this year. Rather than indulging in a Christmas buffet or skipping workouts during school break, she’s in the middle of crunch time, gearing up for the Miss Arkansas Teen pageant. The competition is set for Jan. 4-6, just as the holiday leftovers run out.

“My family is even making changes to our Christmas this year,” Gibbs said. “We’re having ham sandwiches instead of a big spread.”

Gibbs, who works with her personal trainer, Brian Stiles, several times a week, said portion control will be her biggest battle during the holidays. That means only sneaking one of the sugar cookies with homemade icing that her family makes every year.

“But after the competition, I’m eating as many sugar cookies as I want,” Gibbs said, laughing.

Stiles, who has been involved in the fitness industry for more than 15 years, encourages his clients to not take more than three days off from their routine, even during the holidays.

“More than three days off and it’s really hard to get motivated again, even if you’re in really good shape,” Stiles said.

If you’re traveling and stuck in a hotel or a relative’s house with no gym, Stiles recommends three sets of 10-23 reps of simple body-weight exercises, such as push-ups, lunges, wall sits or bench dips using a steady chair.

But for some people, building muscle shouldn’t be the primary focus. For people looking to lose big weight, Stiles said, the focus should start in the kitchen, adding cardio and weights later on.

“We know that the foods at holiday parties are not going to be healthy,” Stiles said.

But all is not lost. Stiles recommends trying simple changes, such as putting your food on a small plate to trick your brain into thinking you’re eating more. Instead of focusing on the pile of fried appetizers in front of you, Stiles tells clients to focus on socializing. Staying hydrated helps keep hunger pangs at bay, and eating a protein-filled snack before leaving for a party can help keep you from overeating.

Tina James, director of food and nutritional services at Harris Hospital in Newport, echoes Stiles’ advice on eating a small meal.

“Skipping meals is one thing people tend to try to do to cut calories,” James said. “But eating small meals throughout the day … and starting the day with anything high in fiber keep people full and satisfied a lot longer, and they don’t have to snack, snack, snack.”

Making simple swaps, like opting for a low-fat yogurt instead of whipped cream or adding less butter can also help cut calories, James said.

“Avoid anything that’s going to be served with a creamy sauce, mayonnaise base or anything smothered or breaded,” James said. “Look for things that are broiled or grilled, watch your portions, and don’t overeat.”

But even the most diligent people break a little when it comes to holiday goodies.

“My aunt’s dirt cake with gummy worms, … it’s a big hit with the kids, and it’s just so good,” Stiles said. “And mac ’n’ cheese that’s a little burned on top, … it’s horrendous carbs, but it’s so hard to resist.”

A few bites of a favorite indulgence don’t have to derail a diet, said James, who tells patients that it’s OK to try a little bit if they maintain an active lifestyle.

“I love chocolate,” James said. “And I’ll be honest; sometimes I do go ahead and have some. Everybody’s human.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or

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