Eat, drink, and be fit

Tending to your physical—and emotional—health during the holidays

Last updated: November 2010

Just when you thought life couldn't get more stressful, the holiday season arrives. For some, an endless whirlwind of busy-ness, with so much to do and so many places to be, leads to time pressure and exhaustion. For others, the stress comes from feeling left out of the whirlwind.

The bustle of a holiday season makes it easy for regular healthy routines to get upended. It seems there just isn't enough time, or motivation, to sit down for a nutritious meal or to fit in a daily walk. As a result, long-term gains and good habits may slip away.

The combination of not eating right and skipping out on exercise can lead to an unwanted holiday present: weight gain. But extra pounds and losing out on nutrition are not foregone conclusions. The key to a healthy holiday season is planning: Know what the challenges will be and have plans in place to meet them. This report will help remind you about menus and diet and exercise strategies that celebrate both the season and your health.

Holiday weight gain: Not inevitable

Pounds put on during the holidays account for half of all weight gained annually. So it's worth the effort to eat smart at this time of year. And exercise is an important part of the picture, too. In one study published in 2000, researchers at the National Institutes of Health reported that participants who said they were much less active gained the most weight during the holiday season.

A common strategy, starving yourself all day so you can eat with abandon at the evening's festivities, is not wise because it's likely to lead to overeating. Instead, eat small, lower-calorie meals throughout the day. Have a snack, like a piece of fruit and some low-fat yogurt, before leaving for a party. That will keep your hunger in control so you won't run straight for the buffet. If you've got a busy day of shopping planned, have breakfast or lunch at home before you head out to the stores. And during the holidays aim to maintain your weight, not lose pounds, which may be too unrealistic a goal.

Consider the following suggestions for healthful eating and drinking during the holidays:

Be selective. There are many delicious, once-a-year food choices during the holidays. To avoid feeling deprived and frustrated, focus on your favorites. Chances are, there are several high-calorie, high-fat dishes you can do without. Decide what you really want to indulge in and keep portions small. And once you've made your choices, step away from the food so you won't be tempted to keep nibbling.

Healthy choices. Head for fruit and vegetable platters and feel free to dig in, taking small portions of high-fat dips. Boiled shrimp with lemon or cocktail sauce is a smarter pick than fried hors d'oeuvres. If you bring a dish to a party, make it a healthful one that you enjoy; you probably won't be the only guest who'll be grateful to have something that's good for you to snack on.

At parties, family get-togethers, and other social events, visit with family and friends rather than focusing on the food. You'll do less eating if you're busy talking. If you're feeling tense, recognize it and find a relaxing activity—such as a quick stroll outdoors or playing with a child—so that you don't use food to reduce your stress.

Drink up. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day—at least eight glasses—will keep you from eating when you're actually thirsty. At parties, try drinking sparkling water with a twist of lemon or lime instead of high-calorie drinks.

Go easy on the alcohol. Despite possible health benefits such as a reduced risk of heart disease, alcoholic beverages should be consumed in moderation or they're likely to do more harm than good. Drinking too much at a holiday party can leave you hung over, embarrassed, and possibly even injured from an accident or fall.

Before leaving for an event where alcohol will be served, decide how many drinks you will have, and stick to your decision. Dilute the alcohol—for example, have two ounces of white wine mixed with sparkling water—and sip your drink slowly. Space your drinks wisely: You might want to have a drink with appetizers, then switch to soft drinks or water. Or nurse a glass or two of wine with your meal, supplementing it with water if you're thirsty.

If you're the designated driver, don't exceed the moderate-drinking limit—one for women, two for men—and wait at least an hour, preferably longer, before getting behind the wheel.

Fitting in exercise

Exercise can increase energy and help relieve stress, so it's especially important not to let fitness fall by the wayside this time of year. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. The following tips can help you reach that goal:

Work out while you shop. You're probably spending a lot of time at malls and other shopping areas this time of year. Since the average person can burn about 220 to 310 calories an hour while walking briskly, use your shopping trips as workout opportunities. Some malls even open early for walkers. Or take a few extra brisk laps before you head home. And parking your car as far away from the entrance as possible (with holiday crowds, this might happen anyway) will allow you to get those extra steps in.

Make it a group effort.
Work physical activities into holiday get-togethers. Plan a party that includes fitness: Try ice skating, hiking, bowling, or dancing. Rather than sitting around the living room, take a walk through your neighborhood to admire holiday decorations. If items like in-line skates, bikes, or footballs are among the holiday gifts, get outside and use them.

Do it bit by bit. The recommendation to get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week doesn't have to happen all at once. The American College of Sports Medicine emphasizes that everyday activities that move the large muscles of your arms and legs, such as using the stairs whenever possible, walking your dog, and energetically cleaning up around the house, can all add up to significant health and fitness benefits.

Other suggested physical activities that can fit into a busy schedule include pedaling a stationary bike while reading or listening to music, riding a bicycle instead of driving to run errands or visit friends, and playing actively with children.

Enjoy the great outdoors. The busy holiday season combined with frosty temperatures in many areas can discourage outdoor exercise. But cold-weather workouts offer special advantages: Your body burns extra calories just keeping warm, and getting outside for a daily dose of activity and sunlight can help keep boredom and the wintertime blues at bay. Be sure to dress in layers, cover your head and extremities, warm up before exercising, and drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout.

Coping with a bittersweet season

For many of us, sorrow and joy can be braided together during the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. For those who have lost friends and loved ones, the pain of remembrance will mix with holiday pleasures.

Along with emotional pressure, too much stress can have bodily consequences. It can interfere with the immune system, for example, possibly making it more likely for you to come down with a cold if you're exposed to one, slow the healing of a wound, and even affect how well the flu vaccine protects you. It can also raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.

But there are ways to lighten any holiday's emotional weight. Here are some recommendations for how to ease stress throughout the year and specifically during holidays.

Cut everyone some slack. People are more irritable when they're under stress, and they may misdirect the irritation at others. This is a time to be more tolerant and understanding of friends, family, coworkers, and yourself.

Maintain perspective. When something minor goes wrong, talk yourself out of getting upset. Take a few deep breaths. Visualize a stop sign to help small negative events stay molehills. Choose a beautiful image to replace a stressful memory or worry.

Spend time with friends and loved ones.
A strong social-support system can help protect you against the effects of stress on the body. If you're often alone, make an effort to mingle with others and find social support in volunteer, religious, or civic activities.

Talk about those who aren't there
. A special toast, remembrances, and displays of photos can stimulate affectionate talk about people you miss. Some families set a place at the table for missing relatives.

Expect less of yourself.
If you don't have the heart to do some of your usual activities, like sending holiday cards, buying lots of gifts, or stringing up lights, skip the less important rituals or see if someone else can do them for you or with you. Focus on activities that lighten your heart and bring out the deeper meaning of the holidays.


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