It’s pretty much a given that most people will overeat during the holidays. But new research has found that the negative health effects of overeating may be tempered by working up a sweat during that time.
Those findings come courtesy of University of Michigan researchers, who discovered that lean people who overate for a week while doing 150 minutes of aerobic exercise for at least six days of that week did not have high blood sugar or bodily inflammation. Markers of bodily inflammation, which has been linked to chronic diseases and cancer, are typically found in people who overeat, making this good news for otherwise healthy people who tend to go a little overboard during the holidays.
Julie Upton, M.S., R.D., co-founder of nutrition website Appetite for Health, tells Yahoo Beauty that she’s not surprised by the findings. “Many studies show how exercise helps improve the body’s ability to improve blood sugar and insulin levels. It also helps to temper inflammation,” she says. That’s why health experts often recommend that people take a walk after dinner, she says: “Exercise is so good at helping normalize blood sugar levels and markers for inflammation. (High blood sugar is bad because it’s inevitably followed by a crash, which can make you feel lethargic and hungry again, among other symptoms.)
Registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agrees. “We know that exercise has a powerfully positive effect on health, especially when performed regularly,” she tells Yahoo Beauty.
Upton says it’s not entirely known why exercise tamps down on bodily inflammation, but it seems to have the ability to suppress cytokines, substances secreted by cells that create inflammation. “Other studies suggest that exercise helps reduce fat mass, and fat cells produce pro-inflammatory cytokines,” she explains.
Just keep this in mind: Exercising too much can increase bodily inflammation, which will work against you. “Going out and running a 10k if you haven’t been training is likely going to cause a spike in inflammation,” Upton says. “On the other hand, low to moderate-intensity exercise appears to be best to temper inflammation.”
While the findings sound like a license to overeat, Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., CSCS, of SoHo Strength Lab and Promix Nutrition, tells Yahoo Beauty it is definitely not. “You cannot out-exercise your bad eating if you overeat,” he says. “You will gain weight. You will have health problems.”
While overeating once is likely not problematic, regularly taking in more calories than you need has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes, among other issues. “Despite this study, it’s best to avoid overeating or binge eating because of the likelihood of contributing to weight gain, and elevated blood sugar and insulin levels,” Upton says.
If you know you’ll have trouble moderating yourself around the holidays, Upton recommends eating lighter for several days leading up to days when you’ll be more tempted to over-indulge so you have a little more “buffer” for the amount of calories you take in. “If you pig-out, do so for one day, then get back on track,” she says.
She also recommends taking a walk after a holiday feast to help stabilize your blood sugar. If you know taking time for a walk will be a struggle, Matheny recommends working out first thing before you get roped into family activities. And, if nothing else, Angelone says it’s a good idea to do short bouts of exercise a few times a day, which can have “significant benefits” if your schedule is packed. “Move more,” she says. “Find fun ways to be more active and sit less.” Matheny agrees. “Do something every day, even if it is minimal,” he says. “You have to take care of yourself first.”