Who doesn’t look forward to vacation? Whether it’s a trip to the beach or a trek to the mountains, vacation is a chance to enjoy life in a way you can’t always do at home. Plus, according to research, regular vacation breaks are good for your health.
How so? One large study showed men who take frequent vacations were 21% less likely to die of heart disease while a study involving women showed those who rarely took vacations, one every 5 or 6 years, were almost 8 times more likely to die of heart disease.
Vacation is the ultimate stress reliever, a chance to get away from the daily grind and sleep late, enjoy the great outdoors, and tackle new experiences head on. Once you get home, research shows you’re likely to be more productive, almost like a brain reboot. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Well, there is one downside. A new study shows vacationing can also pad your waistline.
Weight Gain, Vacationing, and “Creepy Obesity”
In his study, researchers followed 122 healthy, American adults ranging in age from early adulthood to late middle age. The adults took vacations of variable length ranging from a week to several weeks. When they pooled the results, they found 61% of the participants gained weight while on vacation. Although the average weight gain was small, about 0.7 pounds, some participants gained disturbing amounts of weight for such a short period, as much as 7 pounds.
Although 0.7 pounds, the average weight gain, doesn’t sound like a lot, gaining this amount of weight over a brief period of time is problematic. Plus, chances are, unless you work out regularly and eat a healthy diet when you’re not vacationing, you won’t take the weight off. Imagine if you were to come back from every vacation with an additional 0.7 pounds that you never took off.
The term for this type of weight gain is “creeping obesity,” weight gain that stealthily “creeps” up on. It’s the type of weight gain that surprises you one day when you try to button your pants and find you have to lie on the bed, take a deep breath, and struggle like heck to get that button closed!
When you combine vacation weight gain with the pound or so the average person puts on around the holidays, that’s almost 2 pounds a year you’re adding to your frame. It adds up over the years! A person who doesn’t exercise and is a victim of creeping obesity may find they weigh 20 more pounds at age 55 than they did at age 35.
The Culprits Behind Vacation Weight Gain
So where does vacation weight gain come from? “Vacation” to some people means a break from eating healthy too. So, it’s not surprising that calorie intake goes up and food choices become less focused around health during vacation time. Plus, as the researchers in this study point out, people drink more alcohol while on break. In this study, the number of alcoholic drinks participants drank almost doubled. The problem with alcohol is, it’s a liquid, and most people don’t compensate for the alcohol calories they consume by eating less food. Don’t forget, there are 7 calories per gram of alcohol – more than the 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrates.
Research shows that when you splurge in a normal environment, for example, by eating a calorie-laden, sugary dessert at a party, you compensate later in the day by eating less. Science shows you have some flexibility in terms of the calories you can consume without gaining weight. According to some research, calorie intake can vary as much as 600 calories over a day without leading to significant weight changes. Your body has some ability to “self-regulate” and keep you around your current setpoint.
The problem is vacation isn’t a normal environment. Rather than splurging on a piece of cake at a one-time event, it’s easy to turn vacation into an eating spree and indulge in foods you normally wouldn’t. If you’re also taking a break from exercise, that’s a bad combo. You can quickly overcome your body’s ability to compensate metabolically for all of that food and sedentary behavior.
Avoiding “Creepy” Weight Gain When You’re on Vacation
How can you limit the damage? Chances are you’re going to treat yourself to more high-calorie foods than you would at home, so make sure you’re in calorie-burning mode as well. Start the day with a 20-minute high-intensity interval routine to get your metabolic fires burning. With a laptop and a little space, you can do your favorite video workout right from a hotel room. Bring along a pair of resistance bands and do a resistance training session before heading out to munch on that free hotel breakfast.
Plan activity into your vacations. You can even center a vacation around calorie-burning pastimes like hiking or bike riding. Find a tennis court and see how your forehand is shaping up these days. Kayaking is another calorie burner and stress reliever you can do while on vacation. Vacation doesn’t have to mean sitting on the beach with a pina colada. Take a swim instead.
Watch out for those “not so good for you” snacks. Bring along a stash of healthy pre-packaged snacks like nuts and seeds to munch on, so you won’t be tempted to buy carby, processed snacks like chips. Wash those snacks down with green tea rather than sugary drinks. Keep your meal times as regular as possible, and, if you’re eating out, be a menu detective so you don’t get burned by heavy sauces, unhealthy oils, and too much sugar and salt. Ask how items are prepared, and ask them to put the sauce on the side.
The Bottom Line
Enjoy the health benefits of vacation by staying active and not completely letting down your guard. It’s okay to eat something you wouldn’t normally eat, but don’t just throw caution to the wind. Don’t turn a vacation into an “indulgence fest.” Enjoy things you wouldn’t normally eat only in moderation. The more you change your lifestyle when you’re vacating, the harder it will be to get back on track. Vacation, have fun but stay mindful of the bigger picture. Most of all, stay healthy.
HealthNet. “Health Benefits of Vacations”
Health Day. “Vacation Weight Gain Can Lead to Creeping Obesity, Study Finds”
Crit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2005;42(3):197-227.
WebMD. “High-Calorie Splurging Won’t Ruin Your Diet”