The holiday season is upon us, and while it can be a happy time shared with family and friends, it can also be incredibly stressful—not to mention hard on your waistline. In a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the weight of American participants increased by 0.2% during Thanksgiving and 0.4% over Christmas, with Americans gaining 1-3 pounds between Christmas and New Year’s. That said, it is possible to stay fit and focused through the season with some simple lifestyle tweaks. Here are my tips for how to stay healthy over the holidays.
Whether it’s the crowds, financial pressure of gift-giving, or unpleasant political conversations with relatives over Thanksgiving dinner, even the most laidback among us tend to get stressed out around the holidays. Since chronic stress has been linked to conditions like heart disease, anxiety, diabetes, and depression, it’s important to keep our levels in check. That’s why I’m always preaching the benefits of mindfulness meditation. This scientifically proven, accessible relaxation tool requires no special equipment and can be done anytime. But what is it? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) that has brought meditation into the mainstream, mindfulness involves paying deliberate, nonjudgmental attention to the moment. This neutral mindset helps us see our worries and concerns for what they are—just thoughts—and allows us to let them go. A study of graduate healthcare students found those who completed the MBSR program experienced decreased anxiety and increased empathy (which could come in handy when you’re dealing with that uncle who likes to shout about politics at family gatherings). Interested in learning how to harness the stress-busting power of meditation? Many guided meditations are available online for free, or you can choose from my list of favorite smartphone apps to help you stay mindful.
Indulge in Moderation
A commitment to eating healthy through the holiday season is hard to maintain when there are temptations at every turn. Even if you ignore the cookies in the break room today, there will be another delicious-looking treat waiting for you tomorrow. Throw in a couple holiday parties with sugary cocktails and buffet tables of high-calorie snacks, and weight gain seems inevitable. But there are things you can do to enjoy the flavors of the season without going overboard. Here are some tips from Dr. Oz’s blog offered by Rita Beckford, MD.
- Drink plenty of water, especially before every meal and snack.
- Fill up on vegetables at meals. At parties, try to hit the veggie tray first.
- No going back for seconds! Set this rule in advance so you’ll stick to it.
- For more from Dr. Oz on how to avoid seasonal weight gain, check out his printable Holiday Cheat Sheet here.
Move Your Body
I know, I know. It’s hard enough to make time for working out during the rest of the year, but around the holidays it’s impossible. As a busy physician and father who’s also a triathlete, I hear you! But exercise truly is the best solution to the dual holiday problems of stress and excessive calorie consumption. As I write about here, exercise impacts your brain as well as your body. Not only does it boost production of endorphins, the neurotransmitters responsible for that “runner’s high” you get after working out, exercise also lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found exercise boosts the production of cortical glutamate and GABA, neurotransmitters known for their positive effects on mood and anxiety. This result probably comes as no surprise to fitness enthusiasts—according to a 2013 survey conducted by American Psychological Association called Stress in America, over half of adults said they felt better about themselves after exercising, and 30 percent said exercise helped them feel less stressed. The good news for all you time-crunched guys out there? Harvard Men’s Health Watch reports you only need to exercise moderately (think walking, jogging, or the elliptical machine) for about 20 minutes to lower your stress levels. A brisk stroll around the neighborhood is also an excellent way to stimulate your digestive system and burn a few calories after a heavy holiday meal (it’s also a good way to avoid the aforementioned political conversations).
Wondering what others areas of your health could use your attention? Consider taking my Optimal Men’s Health quiz. It’s designed to help you determine your next best step to getting healthier and closer to winning.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.