With brighter and warmer days ahead, it may seem like the grey and frigid days of winter are completely behind us. But while many of us have bid farewell to winter, others continue struggling with its aftereffects, including weight gain, which can be caused by a number of culprits– some of which are better known than others. In fact, studies have shown American adults gain up to 2 pounds between November and January alone. Fortunately, milder temperatures and more sunshine make spring ideal for adopting healthier behaviors or recommitting to resolutions you may have already abandoned early in the year.
There are several obvious reasons why Americans gain weight during the winter. For starters, the colder weather deters many individuals from staying active because exercising in frigid temperatures and indoor routines aren’t as appealing to them, causing fewer calories to be burned. Another well-known culprit is the holiday season, which brings with it an influx of parties and gatherings full of food and drink that expand our waistlines. Additionally, as the outdoor temperatures plummet, we reach for comfort foods or heavier, more warming foods to help raise body temperature, thereby increasing our caloric intake.
However, while food and lack of exercise are frequently linked to weight gain during the winter months, other causes like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), sleep-related hormonal changes and stress are often overlooked.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or the winter blues, is a type of depression that usually occurs during the winter months. SAD can range from mild to severe, significantly affecting quality of life. It is thought to be related to changes in hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in your body) in response to loss of daylight, as well as changes in sleep patterns that occur during the winter months. It can be associated with an abnormal lack of energy, sadness, excessive sleepiness, increased appetite, and increased cravings– all of which can contribute to weight gain.
Hormones also play a significant role in weight gain during the winter months. In fact, research has shown that levels of melatonin, the hormone responsible for our sleep-wake cycle, and increased appetite, is up to 80 percent higher in the body during the winter. Interrupted sleep can increase appetite, which may contribute to consuming more calorie-dense foods resulting in weight gain. Furthermore, combining a lack of sleep with holiday stress can raise levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in the blood, which can increase visceral or abdominal fat storage.
While it’s important to be conscious of the impact the winter months can have on your health, the start of spring gives us an opportunity to rethink our diets, physical activity, and sleep routine, enabling us to lose winter weight and be healthier overall. Here are some simple tips for refreshing your wellness routine for spring and effectively leave the aftereffects of winter behind.
Savor In-Season Fruits and Vegetables
Spring is ideal for seasonal eating. Seasonal produce is often fresher; it’s picked at its peak, not processed or frozen or traveling long distances to get to the supermarket shelves. Incorporating fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables into your diet, like mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, and berries which are all packed with micronutrients your body and brain are longing for, plus extra fiber to help maximize your calorie intake and keep you feeling full longer. Visit your local farmer’s market for fruits and vegetables at the peak of the growing season. In addition, focus on getting healthy fats from produce and whole foods – like avocados, nuts, and seeds – rather than refined oils and fried foods.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
When it’s warmer outside, heat and humidity can accelerate fluid loss and make it even harder to stay well-hydrated. In fact, your body can lose more moisture through sweating, even if you don’t feel yourself getting sweaty. A big potential benefit of drinking enough water is that it may help you avoid overeating – often times we feel hungry when we really our body needs water.
If you are working out longer than 30 minutes, or in a hot or humid environment, you may need more than just plain water both during and after exercise. This is because, while exercising, your body is losing important minerals – particularly sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium – which help ensure proper function of your nerves, muscles, heart, and brain.
Increase your daily hydration with a few proactive steps like starting the day with a big glass of water before your coffee or tea, always keeping a water bottle handy, or a pitcher of water at your desk. You can also increase your fluid intake by eating fruits like melons, leafy greens and cucumbers and jazzing up your water by adding in citrus, herbs, fruit or a splash of juice.
Get Outside and Get Moving
It’s well known that regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health and weight management. In the springtime, it can be as simple as taking a walk down the block or spending some time gardening. In fact, any activity that gets your bones and muscles moving can help, but by exercising outdoors in nature, we can reap extra benefits.Exercising outdoors increases our exposure to sunlight, enhancing vitamin D production, which has been linked to improving mood, promoting bone health, boosting immune systemfunction and reducing inflammation. And if you’re walking or running on uneven terrain, it can engage more muscles and improve your balance compared with moving on a flat surface.
Soak Up the Sun
After months of mainly grey and gloomy skies, one of the most effective ways to shake off remnants of the winter blues is by getting some sun. Sunshine increases your serotonin which can help boost your mood. This can especially benefit individuals on the tail end of SAD. As mentioned, exposure to sunlight also helps the skin produce vitamin D, which is good for bone health, immune function, and other functions in the body. Just remember to use proper sun protection, which includes wearing sunglasses, protective clothing, and sunscreen.
Reset Your Sleep Schedule
It’s likely that the dark, cold winter days have thrown your sleep schedule off track so use spring as a reset. Our sleep schedule can be affected by several factors. Our body clocks, which control our sleep schedules, are sensitive to light, things like how much sunlight we’re exposed to throughout the day and what types of light we’re exposed to at night affect our sleep schedules. Your food choices and exercise can also impact your quality of sleep.
And did you know that insufficient sleep is associated with higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which increases appetite, and lower levels of the hormone leptin, which leads to feeling less full? When sleep is an issue, it sets you up for weight gain. Therefore, cleaning up your pre-sleep routine can help ensure that you get sufficient sleep or at least 7 hours a night.
Other ways to clean up your pre-sleep routine include avoiding fatty or high-protein meals at dinner, watching your intake of caffeine or alcohol, and not overdoing fluids in the evening. It’s also recommended to get up at the same time each day — ideally with exposure to light right away. Waking up at the same time day after day gets your body into a routine that becomes easier to maintain.
Cultivate a Positive Mindset
According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive thoughts. What we tell ourselves on an ongoing basis reflects not only the way we think but how we feel and act. Fortunately, with practice you can turn negative thinking into positive thinking. While the process is simple, it takes time and practice as is necessary when creating a new habit.
One way to reduce negative thinking is by practicing positive self-talk. If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it, and choose to change it. For example, instead of thinking “there’s no way it will work,” tell yourself “I can try to make it work.” Practice this for a week and see how differently you feel. The chemicals produced by the body in response to positive thoughts are more likely to support you as you spring into the new season.
While the winter months can wreak havoc on our wellness routines, spring provides us with the opportunity to reverse the damage. The increased daylight and warmer temperatures encourage hormonal changes that help boost our mood and energy levels giving us the kick start we need to reinvigorate our exercise routines, revive our healthy diet, create a positive mindset, and fix our sleep schedules all of which can give us a solid foundation for better health year-round.