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10 Ways to Maintain Your Health & Fitness Over the Holidays

An expert in long-term wellness shares how to be merry, mindful, and healthy.

vm2002/Adobe Stock
Source: vm2002/Adobe Stock

The holiday season is a time of celebration and festive foods. Finding the balance between enjoying these weeks and staying fit and healthy can be tricky.

I'm very happy to have a guest post from Dr. Aria, an expert in long-term health and mindfulness, who shows how to successfully navigate through the holiday season. Below are his top 10 tips to be merry, mindful, and healthful.

1. Ditch the all-or-nothing mindset

Many people fall into the "all-or-nothing" mindset trap, overeating throughout the holiday season with the unrealistic expectation of quickly losing weight and getting fit in January. The problem is that stepping on the scales on January 1 to see that you’ve gained five pounds can be extremely demotivating. Research indicates that 92 percent of people fail to achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Rather than taking extreme measures by letting loose throughout December and going on a restrictive diet in the New Year, take the middle road. Try to eat healthily most of the time, but then give yourself permission to enjoy the special Christmas and other holiday occasions without feeling guilty afterwards.

2. Mindfully eat your mince pie

It’s easy to fall into the habits of playing with your phone while you eat or sitting in front of the TV with a tin of holiday cookies. A scientific review of 24 studies recently found that eating when distracted leads to people eating approximately 10 percent more at the time and nearly 25 percent more at their next meal.

Distractions divert your attention and so the brain is unable to accurately register the amount of food you’ve consumed. If you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating, this information is less likely to be stored in your memory bank. With fewer memories of what you’ve had that day, when you sit down for your next meal you’re likely to eat significantly more. So if you’re about to eat your mince pie, sit down at the kitchen table, put away your phone, take your time and mindfully enjoy every bite!

3. Choose the foods you love

We often feel obliged to eat festive foods at holiday parties or events. However, unless you really enjoy mince pies, brandy butter, mulled wine, eggnog or Christmas cake, you’ll be unnecessarily consuming extra calories. Only eat the foods that you really enjoy! If you are a fan of mince pies, arrange to meet up with a friend at a café that makes delicious, fresh mince pies. You’ll gain more pleasure from this than mindlessly scoffing a free one while buying your holiday decorations.

4. Remember that food is not the enemy!

Research shows that banning foods actually backfires, leading to people liking, wanting and eating more of the “forbidden” items. A research study published in the scientific journal Appetite found that participants with a tendency to overeat consumed approximately 133 percent more chocolate when prohibited from eating it for 24 hours.

Psychologically banning a food or going on a diet that demonizes a specific food group, such as carbs or fats, is the perfect recipe for inducing overeating and weight gain. Rather than viewing certain foods as “bad,” a more helpful way to think about nutrition from a mindset point of view is “everyday foods” and “sometimes foods.” As long as you don’t eat like this every day, you can enjoy a couple of big, delicious holiday dinners with your friends and family without impacting your health in the long run.

5. Plan your social calendar wisely

The holiday season can be one of the busiest times of the year. We can cram in so many work and social events that our sleep is disrupted. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that people who reported less than 6 hours sleep and the highest stress levels were around half as likely to reach their weight loss goals than those with 6-8 hours sleep and lower stress.

There’s a consistent body of scientific evidence showing that less sleep is associated with bigger waistlines. Sleep loss results in changes in our hormonal levels, leading to higher levels of ghrelin and decreased levels of leptin, which is linked to increased hunger and appetite.

Aim to spread your social events out over the festive break – you may even want to decline one or two invitations. When you do have a big night coming up, try to have enough sleep, eat well, and exercise a few days before and after the occasion so that you give your body the best chance to rest and rejuvenate.

6. Don’t be tricked into making impulse holiday food buys

Psychological research indicates that we make over 200 food-related decisions every day, with 90 percent happening without our awareness. Grocery industry studies suggest that 60-70 percent of purchases are unplanned. Retailers expend considerable resources on changing the in-store layout, display arrangements, shelf configurations,ambiancembience, and time-limited promotions to subconsciously influence consumer spending and induce impulse buys.

Impulse buying because an item is reduced in price or you’re waiting in line may boost the store’s profits, but over time can supersize your waistline. Marketing studies show that impulse buying increases when you shop without a shopping list, spend more time in the store, visit more aisles, and shop in unfamiliar store layouts.

To stay on track with healthy eating when supermarket shopping, write a shopping list and go straight for these items rather than walking up and down each supermarket aisle. Remember, if an item is reduced in price but it isn’t on your shopping list, you’re not saving money by buying it!

7. Give yourself permission

The winter holidays can be a stressful time of year with work, family, and social commitments. When we’re stressed, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol. Consistently high levels of cortisol may increase the ability of fat cells to store fat and promote the accumulation of fat around the waist.

Stress-related eating is also linked to weight gain. The more stressed you feel, the more important it is to look after yourself by still making time to eat a nourishing lunch, running a hot bath at the end of the day or attending your favorite yoga class in order to stay well.

Self-care isn’t selfish. This holiday season give yourself permission to look after yourself and prioritize your health. The irony is that when you’re feeling at your best, you have more energy and headspace to give to others.

8. Buy your holiday food just in time for the holidays

Supermarkets stock festive foods weeks before the holidays. Promotions and offers can lead to the kitchen cupboards being filled with tempting foods. Ask yourself: "If I buy these boxes of cookies or mince pies now, will they last until the holidays? Or is it far more likely I’ll open them up after a long day to have with a cup of tea?"

Studies show that stockpiling – storing large quantities of a food at home – leads to significantly increased consumption. People who buy cookies for an upcoming party end up eating 155 percent more on a daily basis. You might want to buy your turkey in advance, but for all those other foods that you’ll find tempting, see if you can buy them as close to your holiday celebrations as possible.

9. Box up the tempting leftovers on Boxing Day (aka December 26)

Sugary, fatty and salty foods change the chemistry in the brain, triggering reward circuits and stimulating the release of dopamine, which gives us a pleasurable feeling. Research shows that even seeing foods high in sugar and fat triggers the reward circuitry in the brain. Certain foods exert such a powerful effect on the brain’s reward network and biochemistry that willpower alone is often insufficient to resist eating these foods. Different foods, whether chocolate, potato chips, or cheese, invoke different responses in different people.

To stay on track with your health goals and feel more in control, it’s important to know which foods you find most difficult to resist. If you celebrate Christmas, for example, pack up these foods on Boxing Day and give them away to work, friends, or a food shelter. You’ll go into the New Year feeling healthier and more in control.

10. Forgive yourself when things go wrong

Christmas and other holidays can be a banquet of indulgent foods and drinks at work buffets, friends’ parties and family lunches. There will be times when you eat less healthily than you intended. That’s okay! Be aware of the trap of overeating, feeling awful, and then overeating more.

The secret to lasting health and sustainable weight loss is developing the skill to get back on track as soon as possible. You might think that you need to be hard on yourself to ensure you don’t make the same mistake again. However, when we internally criticize ourselves we tend to feel ashamed and want to hide from the situation. Research shows that being self-compassionate promotes resilience and accountability. When you’re kind to yourself and accept that everyone make mistakes, you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed by the situation and more likely to take responsibility and bounce back.

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