The holidays change people. College students finish finals, pack their bags, bid friends farewell and head out of town. Whether they are on vacation or simply relaxing at home, the vast majority will gain weight.
This phenomenon is aptly dubbed “winter weight,” and with an average gain of two to three pounds among college students, it is no surprise that one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to get in shape and shed those extra pounds. However, for the decidedly non-athletic student, just hitting the gym and dropping a few pounds can be a bit of a challenge. Luckily, there is a simple formula for weight loss and several easy tips for getting the formula right.
“The solution or formula is you have to take in fewer calories that you are burning,” said Liz Applegate, Ph.D., director of sports nutrition for UC Davis Intercollegiate Athletics. “You need to create a calorie deficit, eating less than you are burning.”
There are two parts to this formula. The first is to take in fewer calories, and in order to do this you need to identify where the calories are coming from.
“I know when I go back home, my mom spoils me rotten with food and desserts and stuff,” said Sim Jagait, a fourth-year English major and ARC employee.
Applegate agreed, saying that the combination of having more downtime, cold weather and holiday food breaks up the average student’s routine. This means there’s more time to eat, and without access to the ARC, most students spend winter break running the weight-loss formula in reverse.
“Generally people are around holiday foods that make them feel good,” Applegate said. “They love eating cookies, and maybe that’s what their family has done traditionally, or maybe they get some other type of food that they can’t get at school. So they go for it.”
Anna Beketova, fourth year biochemistry and molecular biology major, dealt with the temptations of delicious, but deadly, holiday sweets.
“My sister went to Germany and brought a suitcase full of special chocolates,” she said. “I actually tried to stay away from it as much as I could. I know that people typically come home a little heavier from the break. I tried to watch it as much as possible.”
Eating more calories isn’t the only problem, however. Traditional holiday foods also amplify the weight gain.
The simple solution here is to cut portion sizes, and Applegate recommended starting with very small steps and small goals.
“If you’re used to eating two sweets a day, allow yourself one sweet item per day, or maybe one every other day.”
Though cutting portion sizes may help to counter the excessive holiday calorie intake, there’s still the second part of the formula to consider: burning calories.
“Pick up on your activity,” Applegate said. “You don’t have to become a superstar athlete, but you can ride your bike to class, you can walk, take the bus a shorter distance [than normal] and walk to class. Give yourself 30 to 60 minutes of downtime that you actually spend exercising rather than in front of a screen.”
Both Applegate and Jagait agreed that for the non-athletic student, it’s important to start small. Applegate suggested beginning with two 30-minute walks each week, and gradually increasing the number of walks.
Jagait also stated that consistently exercising for short periods several times a week is more profitable than a single long workout once a week.
“Working out once a week, you’ll be sore and everything for a couple of days, and then you’ll feel like nothing happened. Working out every day, but on different parts of your body — you’ll definitely feel that,” Jagait said. “You build up your endurance [first], then you can make [your workout] longer.”
Two things majorly impact the effectiveness of a workout, though — how you work out, and, once again, what you eat. For someone who doesn’t enjoy exercise, finding the right activity and eating the right foods to stay energized can mean the difference between staying motivated and giving up.
Jagait described a friend who puts a dollar in a jar every time she works out.
“Open it up at the end of the quarter or the end of the month and treat yourself to something,” Jagait said. “Definitely have some form of motivation.”
Applegate also had some tips concerning what students can eat or drink to stay energized through a workout.
“The best thing is caffeine,” Applegate said. “I would suggest something like coffee or a caffeinated tea. It actually makes you feel more energized during a workout. I’m just talking about a simple espresso drink, a cup of coffee from Starbucks, that’ll do it. If you’re not used to caffeine, a small amount may have a pretty profound effect. It does help you feel more alert and may push you through exercise.”
She also proposed thinking about what time of day students should work out.
“It really comes down to someone’s level of alertness,” Applegate said. “If you don’t feel good exercising in the morning, try the afternoon or early evening. People tend to do better at that time because they are more awake and tend to be more willing to exercise.”
Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or get in shape, and Jagait confirmed that this is the ARC’s busiest season.
In order to make the most of these resolutions, Applegate again emphasized starting small.
“Research shows that people who make small changes are more apt to continue with those changes and to make others, so that collectively, over time, they end up being more meaningful, more effective and more change-producing in terms of health benefits,” Applegate said. “So just a little bit of exercise, a little bit of vegetables, a little bit of fruit, and that’ll get you going on your way for a good 2013.”
NAOMI NISHIHARA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.