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Why do women gain weight in the winter?

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Fight back against winter weight gain

Do you dread the cold weather because it means packing on the winter fat until the spring thaw? We talked with Dr. Lisa Davis, vice president of scientific and clinical affairs at Medifast, to find out why we gain weight in the winter and what we can do to counter it.
Woman eating Christmas snack

The holidays can widen our waistlines

It would be nice if the most food-centric holidays during the year could happen during summer, our most active season, but they occur in the beginning of the cold-weather months, when many of us are sedentary. "When we look at the simple math of weight gain -- more calories in than out -- it's easy to understand why we tend to accumulate weight in the winter months," says Dr. Davis. "There are the year-end holidays, full of high-calorie foods, then there's our tendency to cocoon when the days are colder and darker, staying parked in front of the fire or the TV. Who wants to run around outside in the sleet?"

Most of us don't gain as much weight as we fear

Though we can feel those tighter waistbands and it sometimes seems like we're sagging under that "lazy" feeling, Dr. Davis says we may actually exaggerate our weight gain fears. She explains, "The subjects in one clinical study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2001 put on an average of just one pound, picking up the majority of their weight gain in the six-week interval between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day." Further, the weight loss expert says that no more than 11 percent of the subjects in any of the study's weight categories gained 3 percent or more of their body weight.

Move it to lose it

Whether you put on a single pound or tend to plump up during the winter, the key to your counterattack against winter weight gain is to exercise. According to Dr. Davis, in the study above, the participants were asked questions about their habits over the holidays. "The number of parties they attended and their self-reported stress levels didn't show a great effect on weight gain, but their activity level did," she explains. "Those who kept moving were more likely to keep the pounds off."

Dr. Jack Yanovski, the study's principal investigator, reported that "increasing physical activity may be an effective method for preventing [winter] weight gain."

Seasonal effects on hunger

Researchers also found that the biggest winter weight gainers were more likely to report that they felt hungrier during the cold-weather season. Though animal studies show that leptin, a hormone that affects hunger, fluctuates throughout the year, research to date doesn't show any such changes in humans, according to Dr. Davis. She does add, however, that sensitivity to seasonal changes might affect some people's weight gain over time.

Beware of slow weight gain

The biggest weight problem that women face isn't the pound or two we gain during the holidays, but rather the accumulation of pounds that we don't lose every year. "A weight gain of one pound may not sound like the end of the world -- and it isn't, provided we work it off in the spring, but we don't always do so," Dr. Davis explains. "Twenty years from now, we could still be carrying the fatty byproducts of this year's holiday treats on our midsection. Not a cheery thought."

Stay ahead of the game with exercise

Instead of plans to hit the clothing sales to buy bigger sizes, plan to hit the gym or simply schedule more exercise during the winter months. Even if you don't like to brave the elements, you can still make indoor fitness part of your winter routine. Take classes at the gym, do fitness DVDs at home, or head to your computer for online workouts.

More winter fitness tips

Snowshoeing for winter exercise
Indoor fitness: Winter workouts from the experts
Winter fitness: Shovel your way into shape

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