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The '50% rule' can prevent holiday weight gain — here's how to apply it

This simple strategy can save you from weight gain, hangovers and guilt this month.
Christmas celebration toast
Apply the 50% rule to enjoying indulgences during the holiday season, like wine or comfort foods.kieferpix / Getty Images

As a personal trainer for 15 years, I’ve spent many holiday seasons helping clients prevent weight gain and other unwanted side effects of the celebratory time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

The first thing I teach them is the 50% rule.

For years I’ve been using this method myself and because it worked so well in helping me maintain my own health over the holidays, I decided to start introducing it to my private clients. I have been blown away by the difference it’s made.

The 50% rule is simple: You only put in 50% of the effort toward your goal. In other words, take your goal, whatever it is, and slice it in half.

Case in point: One of my clients had set a goal to walk 10,000 steps a day. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and she was so down on herself in our coaching session. She felt like a “failure.” I asked her if this goal was really realistic and how she would feel if her goal was 50% of that, just 5,000 steps a day. She told me she would be ecstatic because she easily hits 5,000 steps every day. So we decided that during the holidays we would cut her goal by 50% and set it at 5,000 steps a day. Anytime she went over (which she did, 100% of the time!) I wanted her to celebrate. As a result, she had the healthiest holiday season of her life because she felt so motivated by achieving (and surpassing) her goal. The success encouraged her to stick to other healthy habits and kept the momentum going.

You can also apply the 50% rule to enjoying indulgences during the holiday season, whether it be comfort foods or festive cocktails.

Here are three common (yet unrealistic) health rules that I hear clients set this time of year and how we use my 50% rule to modify them and encourage healthy behaviors, minus the guilt.

I won’t eat any dessert at holiday parties.

Really?! Let’s try: I will eat half of the desserts that I normally do. I use this rule myself. Instead of grabbing a sugar cookie out of the cookie jar, I break it in half and only eat one half at a time. My 50% rule allows me to enjoy the cookie, but helps prevent me from overdoing it. I enjoy how it tastes, the texture in my mouth and the smell, and then I move on. If I want another cookie, I break off half of it and enjoy.

If I don’t have 30 minutes for a workout, it’s not worth it.

I used to feel this way and it kept me in a holiday workout desert for years! However, when I really worked on my mindset I realized that 15 minutes was better than zero. Just because I enjoy 30-minute workouts on regular days doesn’t mean I needed to forego my workout completely on the days that I don’t have that much time. So during the holidays, when I’m spending time with my relatives and friends, I cut my workout time in half. Once I did this for the first time (the day before Thanksgiving about 10 years ago), I never looked back. I still get the “feel-good” endorphins and I am proud of myself, like I did something positive. Whenever I find myself stuck in the mindset of “I need to do a workout for X number of minutes in order for it to be worth it” I always remind myself that I will reap the same mental benefits by exercising for half the time.

Holiday cocktails are unavoidable. I’ll just start over for Dry January.

This is how many of my clients view their drinking habits during the holidays. I use my 50% rule every season to ensure that I’m not waking up hungover or sluggish. I started to focus on how I wanted to feel every day. Did I want to wake up the next day feeling sluggish, lethargic or having a headache? No! So I decided to look ahead and then plan ahead. I start by estimating how many glasses of wine or cocktails I may consume on a given occasion. Red wine with my mom’s annual Christmas Eve’s spaghetti night? Instead of 3 glasses, my goal is 1.5 glasses total. This simple rule single-handedly made me become more cognizant of my alcohol consumption and allows me to enjoy myself while ensuring I have a productive and energetic morning the next day!