Are you ready for the holidays?
- Planned your Thanksgiving/Hanukah/Christmas menus? Check.
- Decorated the house? Check
- Have your gifts all figured out? Check.
- Made your plan to avoid eating and drinking too much, stay active and keep the stress away during this most wonderful time of the year? Well, maybe not.
We spend a lot of time, energy and money during the holiday season trying to make other people happy: preparing a great meal, buying the perfect gift, traveling a long distance to see family. And that is all for good reason: the holidays are the time of the year when we reconnect with our family and close friends, showing those important in our lives that we care for them.
The downside for many of us is that between the shopping, planning, decorating, cooking, baking, wrapping and party-going, we forget to take care of ourselves. And whether it’s because we feel pressed for time, stressed out about getting everything done to perfection or we’re just flat-out busy and distracted, it’s easy to over-indulge on food and drink, neglect our exercise routine and allow the stress get to us.
“The holiday season should be one that you enjoy with your family and friends, not one that stresses and taxes you to the point of an unhealthy lifestyle,” says Texas Health Care family physician Mark Bernhard, M.D. “The key is to be aware of the potential pitfalls and make a plan ahead of time to avoid them.”
Watch the Waistline
Contrary to common belief, the average person does not gain five or more pounds over the holidays. That’s the good news – it’s closer to one pound, on average. However, studies have shown that the pound does not come off; it stays with us throughout our lives. That leads to a cumulative lifetime weight gain that is significant and unhealthy.
“It’s tempting to say, ‘I’ll get back on track after the first of the year’ or ‘a month of eating too much and not exercising won’t hurt.’ The problem is, the weight we gain in this time period, we tend not to lose,” says Dr. Dan Kutzler. “Compounding the problem, it’s also difficult to break out of a bad habit once you fall into it, even if you have the best of intentions for the new year.”
If you have a chronic health condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, there are some simple things you can do to ensure that the holiday season doesn’t mean an unhealthy intake of sugar or salt. If you’re doing the cooking, it’s easier to ensure that the foods you’re serving aren’t loaded with ingredients which adversely affect your health. If you’ll be dining at a relative or friend’s home, it’s best to let them know of any dietary restrictions before you come (and if you’re a host, it’s always a good idea to ask your guests this question beforehand). You can also always bring your own side or desert to a holiday gathering – you’ll help out the host while ensuring you’ve got something to eat.
It’s a good practice to be mindful of what we’re eating this time of year, even if there is not a specific health concern to worry about, says Dr. Karen Grant. “It’s no secret that we eat a lot of foods around the holidays that tend to be higher in fat, sodium and sugar than what we normally eat. While it’s perfectly fine to indulge a little on special occasions, the key is moderation – have a modest helping of mashed potatoes and gravy, not a plateful. Have a sliver of pie, not a huge slice. Those simple steps will add up to keeping your weight in check while allowing you to enjoy traditional holiday meals.”
Easy on the Bubbly
For some people, alcohol consumption tends to increase around the holidays. Not only does alcohol contribute significantly to our overall calorie intake, it can pose more serious health and safety consequences. It’s not uncommon at a holiday party to see people consume more alcohol than they normally would, leading to intoxication and illness.
The worst aspect of excessive alcohol consumption is the danger the drinker poses to him or herself – and to others. The National Institutes of Health reports that two to three times as many people die in alcohol-related traffic accidents over Christmas and New Year’s, compared to the rest of the year. Additionally, 40 percent of traffic fatalities over Christmas and New Year’s involve a driver who is alcohol-impaired, compared to 28 percent for the rest of December. If you’ve been drinking, don’t drive.
Keep the Stress Away
It’s no wonder that people’s stress levels tend to rise in November and December, with all the shopping, entertaining, travel and other activity. The fact that our holiday season coincides with the end of the calendar year probably does not help – people are under pressure to meet end-of-year deadlines at their jobs and wrap up projects, all while dealing with the added pressures of the holiday season.
“Take a breath once in a while,” advises Dr. Craig Dearden. “Keep in mind that the world is not going to come to an end if things are not exactly ‘perfect.’ You’ll enjoy the season more – and your family and friends will enjoy your company more – if you let go of the little things and relax.”
This is good advice for our physical health, as well as our mental well-being. Unhealthy levels of stress can put added strain on your heart. And some people experiencing undue stress attempt to cope with it by eating or drinking more alcohol than they should.
Two of the main holiday health culprits, weight gain and stress, can be combatted by a simple healthy habit: physical exercise. “People need to be getting in 30 minutes of exercise five to seven days a week, year-round,” says Dr. Doris Morrissette.
“It’s important to keep this up during the holiday season – not only is it good for your heart, it helps keep you grounded and alleviates stress. Not to mention the fact that it helps you burn any of those extra calories you’ve consumed,” notes Dr. Mark Hammonds.
If you’re not on a regular exercise routine now, this is the perfect time to start. It does not have to elaborate or complicated – going for a walk at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a day will get the job done. And just think – you’ll have a head start on your New Year’s resolutions!
For many, the holiday season means traveling, but travel does not have to mean a negative impact on your health. Plan ahead to take the stress out of travel – pack well in advance and if you’re flying, get to the airport early. If you’re driving a long distance, get out of the car and stretch every hour or so and take turns with another driver, if possible. This helps keep you sharp and alert.
Try to recognize that some things, such as flight delays and bad weather, are simply outside your control. In other words, don’t stress out about them.
It’s always important to get a flu shot, but it’s especially important if you are flying. We come into contact with a lot of people and their germs in airplanes and airports, so it’s important to be vaccinated for the flu before traveling. Plan ahead – it takes up to two weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective.
Some people find it difficult to exercise while they are traveling. Remember, it doesn’t have to involve a gym or special equipment – if you’re staying with family or friends, go for a walk around their neighborhood.
Slow Down and Enjoy Life
With all the pressure we put on ourselves this time of the year, it is easy to lose sight of what the holiday season is supposed to be about. Hopefully, it means time with those you are closest to and an opportunity to slow down a little bit and enjoy yourself. And by making your health and well-being part of your holiday planning, you can give yourself and your family a really meaningful present.