How to keep your physical and mental health on track during the holidays

With the holiday season upon us, many people gather with family and friends, whether it’s a workplace party, a get-together with friends or a quiet night at home watching Christmas movies. Although enjoyable, these events can interfere with your healthy lifestyle habits.

A recent survey reported nearly 45 percent of people take a break from exercise during the holidays, more than half say they feel more tired and have less time for themselves, and approximately about one-third report drinking more.

My research looks at the benefits of a healthy lifestyle on physical and mental health. And many of these same healthy behaviors will help you navigate the holidays.

Eating right

Cakes, chocolates, spiced ham, turkey stuffing, mulled wine and other delights abound this time of year. Most of these foods are high in fat, sugar and calories. So it’s no surprise that the holidays are associated with a greater consumption of food. And one survey pegged people at eating nearly 6,000 calories on Christmas Day. That’s two to three times the daily caloric recommendation for most people.

In one survey, one-third of people reported drinking more alcohol during the holidays.
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With this amount of food, many claim that the vacation results in weight gain. While there is a strong rumor that the average holiday weight gain is five to 10 pounds (2.25 to 4.5 kilograms), in reality it may be much less. A study published in 2000 reported that it was about a pound, or about half a kilogram. However, since this is an average amount, there were still some people in the study who gained five or more pounds.

While indulging on one or two occasions won’t ruin your diet, if you have a holiday circuit of events to do, you may want to develop a strategy on how to manage your diet. First ask yourself if you need (or want) to go through all of them.

For the events you’re going to, pick one or two occasions where you’ll indulge. They may have the best food, or your closest family and friends are there. For others, try to stay on the healthier side of things.

Before you go, make sure you eat well the day leading up to your event so you don’t go to the event hungry. Also, make sure you get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can make you more likely to reach for high-energy foods and eat more.

Try enlisting the help of a health buddy, whether it’s a friend or even the host, to keep you on track. And be careful about drinking alcohol, which can damage your self-discipline.

Staying active

Melted snowman cookies against a blue background
Missing a few exercise sessions won’t affect your fitness and long-term health, but it can affect your mood.
(Shutterstock)

When it comes to exercise, most of us are creatures of habit. This is a good thing, because having a routine is the best way to maintain regular exercise. But the holidays are anything but routine. Gyms, pools and community centers may have reduced hours or be closed. Your trainer or aerobics instructor may have taken a break.

Now, missing a few exercise sessions won’t affect your fitness and long-term health, but it can affect your mood. Exercise is known to increase energy levels, improve mood and reduce stress. All of these can help during the frenetic holidays. And not exercising can be like not drinking coffee in the morning.

But the holidays also present many opportunities to get in a lot of activities from shopping to Christmas markets to walking around your neighborhood looking at decorations.

You can also get into the holiday spirit by singing Christmas carols (or any other song). Singing can reduce anxiety, potentially increase your lung capacity and increase the number of infection-fighting molecules in your blood. And singing with others is known to build social bonds and release oxytocin, which can improve their mood.

While the quality of your singing is not important for most of these benefits, the more you sing, the more likely you will benefit.

Stress management

Nearly 90 percent of adults in the United States associate the holiday season with some form of stress. While the holidays are meant to be a time of joy, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed with shopping, hosting events, expectations of others and additional financial expenses.

red and white mini candy canes arranged in a heart shape and large heart shaped candy canes with one side split into three pieces
While the holidays are meant to be a time of joy, it’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed with shopping, hosting events, expectations of others and additional financial expenses.
(Shutterstock)

This may be one of the reasons why the number of heart attacks and heart-related deaths increases during the holiday season. In addition, it believed people delayed seeking treatment during the holidays, as emergency department visits increased after they were over.

Stress occurs when people feel that they have no control over what is happening. Setting up a holiday plan can help. Your plan may include a spending budget, which events you will attend and which you will decline. If you’re hosting a dinner party, plan the menu in advance, enlist the help of others or even get take-out.

Other strategies for managing, and preventing, stress include regular exercise, making sure you get enough sleep, avoiding unrealistic expectations and setting aside some quiet time to do something just for yourself.

While we all want things to be perfect, even the best laid plans can go astray. If that happens, it’s okay and take it easy on yourself. If you find the holidays difficult, make sure you reach out to the people around you for their support.

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