The Antidote for Winter Weight Gain

How to pedal off those extra pounds for good.

It’s no secret that many of us pack on a few extra pounds during the winter months—and that extra padding becomes particularly noticeable as we head into the warmer months. Usually that added layer of body fat stems from eating more (more comfort foods, in particular) and/or getting less physical activity, given that it’s cold outside and there are fewer hours of daylight. In fact, a 2016 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that winter (an entire season!) is one of the most common factors that leads to prolonged, uninterrupted bouts of sedentary behavior among middle-aged and older adults.

Making matters worse, the amount of weight someone gains over a six-month period tends to predict long-term weight gain over a period of years, according to a 2015 study from Drexel University. Which means that your season of discontent can lead to an enduring discontent with your weight. 

Fortunately, you can take steps to prevent this long-term trend from occurring—and indoor cycling can be part of the solution, especially when it’s still chilly outside. A study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that when obese women took up a daily exercise program that progressively increased to 60 minutes per day without introducing any dietary restrictions, the women assigned to ride a stationary bicycle lost 12 percent of their initial body weight while those in the walking group lost 10 percent of their initial weight; both groups also lost body fat as measured by skin-fold calipers. (By contrast, women who swam didn’t lose any weight or body fat.) In an indoor cycling class you can burn 400 to 600 calories (and sometimes more) in a 45-minute workout, which is considerably more than you’d burn with a leisurely stationary cycling session. (Remember: you can also crank up the intensity with a solo ride that simulates an indoor cycling class with intervals.)

Of course, dietary changes—including reducing your overall calorie intake and choosing healthier foods (namely, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats)—should be part of the equation if you want to lose weight steadily and keep it off. After all, it’s hard to lose weight solely through exercise because it’s hard to burn enough calories through physical activity to compensate for the typical American diet. But simply slashing calories from your diet isn’t the answer, either, because restricting food intake without exercising results in greater loss of lean muscle mass. Moreover, a 2016 study from the University of Ottawa found that when people reduced their dietary calorie intake by 25 percent, they experienced a greater increase in their appetites and ate more food when allowed to eat freely than those who ratcheted up their calorie expenditure by 25 percent through aerobic exercise.

So the best approach to knocking out winter weight gain (or any other type) is the one-two punch of dietary modifications plus physical activity. In fact, a 2009 meta-analysis of 18 randomized trials found that interventions that combined a diet and an exercise program “produced greater long-term weight loss than interventions that only included a diet” program. Add strength training to the combo (the third knock-out punch) and you’ll help preserve or increase your lean muscle mass, which can help you maintain your weight loss for the long haul. That’s because pound for pound, muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue does, even when you’re sitting still.

And it doesn’t take as much time or effort as you may think: Research from Southern Illinois University found that when overweight adults did one set of resistance training exercises (which took only 15 minutes!), their resting energy expenditure (a.k.a., their calorie-burning rate) was elevated equally for 72 hours after the workout as when they did three sets. That’s an impressive payoff for a relatively low investment of time.

Before bathing suit season rolls around, kick-start your winter-weight loss efforts with indoor cycling and a strength-training regimen. Do indoor cycling at least three times a week, plus another cardio workout two other days, and strength training two to three times per week on non-consecutive days. In the process, you’ll torch loads of calories and build metabolism-boosting muscle. Resume eating as if it were already summer—with lots of fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of whole grains and lean protein—and you’ll be ready to shed those heavy winter clothes, along with those extra pounds, before you know it!

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