Eating is a key part of Christmas. Some would probably say that it’s the key part, as well as the thing they look the most forward to. Unfortunately though, eating isn’t without risks. This is particularly true in this day and age, in which junk foods abound, and during Christmas, when it’s common practice to stuff oneself with heavy holiday dishes, sugary desserts, and candy. Besides being somewhat sensible with respects to how much, as well as what, one consumes, there are several other strategies that one can employ in order to protect one’s body and health during the Christmas season, one of which is to be physically active before one sits down to eat.
How physical activity helps protect the body against food-induced harm
When you eat, food passes down into your stomach and intestines, where it’s broken down into various small substances, such as amino acids, glucose, and fructose, which are absorbed into your body. The body responds to this influx of nutrients by adjusting its production of compounds (e.g., hormones) that play a role in regulating your metabolism and distribution of energy. If the meal is healthy, your body is healthy, and your lifestyle is healthy, this process if pretty seamless. If one or more of those conditions aren’t met though, digestive and metabolic processes are probably going to be compromised or dysregulated in some way. For example, if you’re very overweight and suffer from type-2 diabetes, your ability to handle glucose loads is compromised.
Physical activity ties in with these processes because it affects a variety of bodily functions that play a role in digestion and metabolism and influence how we react to the consumption of food. Rigorous physical activity significantly increases the body’s metabolic rate, not just during, but also for some time after, movement has ceased; releases fatty acids from adipose tissue; and affects the production of a variety of compounds that regulate everything from the rate at which nutrients are absorbed into cells to how hungry we are.
By walking, lifting weights, sprinting, or otherwise being physically active prior to eating, you’ll help your body deal with the meal in a healthy and effective manner by improving its glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and immune profile, among other things (1, 2, 3, 4). Following activity, in particular resistance exercise, your skeletal muscles will be like sponges, in the sense that they’ll hungrily absorb nutrients (e.g., glucose) from the bloodstream. That’s a good thing, particularly if you’re taking in a lot of carbohydrate-rich foods. If that’s the case but you don’t exercise much, then chances are your blood glucose levels are going to reach undesirably high levels on a regular basis.
Physical activity is also critical in the context of appetite regulation, as it helps adjust and “set” the body’s production of hormones such as ghrelin and leptin (5, 6). Finally, certain forms of exercise have been shown to positively affect the composition of the microbial communities we harbor (7, 8), which contribute to shaping our appetite and dietary behaviors.
This is perhaps particularly relevant during the holidays, as the holidays typically involve regular, immoderate consumption of very fatty, salty, and sugary foods. Such foods wreak havoc on our bodies, especially if we don’t take any precautionary measures so as to prepare them for the onslaught that’s about to come their way.
The evolutionary rationale: Why it makes Darwinian sense to exercise before one eats
Up until very recently in our evolutionary history, physical activity and food consumption were inseparable components of human lives. Our primal ancestors had to move their bodies, or else, they wouldn’t have gotten a hold of anything to eat.
The eating pattern of hunter-gatherers varies across space and time. With that said, a general pattern is clearly visible in the reports of explorers, researchers, and travelers who’ve visited non-industrialized, remote communities. Typically, hunter-gatherers hunt and forage early in the day, before they sit down to eat later on. They may eat some leftovers from the previous day shortly after they wake up in the morning and snack on berries, nuts, and fruit as they move around during the day, but they typically don’t sit down for a real meal until the afternoon or night is upon them. There’s no reason to think that the situation was any different in the distant past.
In other words, from an evolutionary point of view, it may be said that it’s the norm, rather than the exception, to be physically active prior to eating. Seeing as the physiological systems of the human body were designed to function well under the conditions under which we evolved, this suggests that we need to be physically active in order to respond appropriately to influxes of food.
This prediction has been scientifically proven to be correct, in the sense that physical activity has been shown to bring about a number of physiological effects that improve our appetite, digestion, and metabolism. This doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to always move before one eats; however, there’s no doubt that it’s often a good idea to get some exercise in before one sits down for a meal, particularly if one’s sitting down for a heavy Christmas dinner.
Exercise is not what most people associate with Christmas. On the contrary, relaxation, comfort, and eating are at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds as they head into the holiday season. There’s no reason to try and turn this completely around and morph Christmas as we know it today into a strenuous holiday that involves a lot of rigorous physical activity. That said, you’d be wise to add a bit of exercise to the holiday mix. Not just because it’ll help regulate your appetite and improve the way your body deals with food, but also because it could contribute to getting you into a good mood and raising your Christmas spirits.