When you’re not busy decking the halls or carefully avoiding your credit card statement, you’re spending mental energy worrying how to make it to every holiday event you’ve been invited to. December is full of cheer, but it also serves as the month of great distractions, when finding time to work out, think or prep a salad is challenging. In addition to making you feel #overwhelmed, your health can also suffer.
Cardiovascular surgeon Dr. David Greuner says that between parties and traditional meals that are packed with fat, nights with little sleep and plenty of pressure from friends and family, it’s no wonder so many wake up in the new year ready to change everything around.
“Holiday dinners and parties are loaded with unhealthy, high-calorie foods and alcoholic drinks, which in excess can lead to weight gain and affect your heart health, and excessive drinking can raise your blood pressure,” he explains. “Jam-packed schedules and holiday travel can cause stress and cut down the amount of rest you are getting.”
The good news is, with some easy tweaks, you can still savor all the priceless memories and celebrations this season without sacrificing your immune system or sanity.
Especially when you’re suffering through a painfully awkward corporate gathering at your partner’s stuffy office, the temptation to constantly refill your Champagne glass is high. But before you reach for another chocolate-covered cherry or request another wine, author and health expert Dr. Lynn Anderson says to practice the fine art of moderation. You can still savor the sweets and the bubbles without overindulging by exercising a smart pause before seconds.
“Enjoy the parties and all the holiday food, but do it in moderation," she explains. "One cookie soulfully enjoyed is worth more than 10 cookies inhaled without thought. Pleasure is fleeting, but moderation brings satisfaction and balance. This is a surefire way to stay healthy and enjoy the holidays."
So you work for a rad start-up that has planned a ski weekend, a holiday happy hour, a secret gift exchange, a cookie-decorating afternoon and a volunteering opportunity to give back to the homeless. It’s all great, and sure, you’d love to join in — but it’s OK if you don’t go to every little event.
In fact, it’s better for your health if you don’t according to family medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center, Elizabeth Dueñas. “The holiday season is short, and we’re often tempted to pack too much into the last six weeks of the year. Give yourself permission to ask for help or know that it’s OK to say no to some invitations. It’s healthy to realize you do not have to do everything or please everyone, especially if it winds up hurting you,” she explains.
Sure, you want that epic Instagram family selfie gathered around the tree or the menorah or for your toddler’s holiday to be magical. And yes, when your mother-in-law constantly nitpicks every little choice you make or pie you bake, you can start to feel insecure fast.
Alternative health expert and author Peter Bedard says striving for perfection is a surefire way to add unnecessary stress to an already nerve-wracking time of year. Instead, he suggests adopting an "it is what it is" mentality far beyond the holiday season and into your next lap around the sun.
“We can often get caught up in the drama and stories, outside and inside our brains/lives, that will lead us into conflict and despair not to mention totally ruin your holiday,” he explains. “When we can step back and observe the facts of the situation around us and simply say, ‘It is what it is!’ we are standing on solid ground and releasing the opinions, judgments and fears that create separation and conflict.”
Can’t fathom how you could possible squeeze in a mere half-hour of sweating? It might be lunges in the supermarket while picking up last-minute forgotten ingredients or sprints in the parking lot of your kid’s school while you wait to pick them up for winter break — but it can be done. And when you prioritize it, Greuner says you’ll see a big improvement in your mood. “The holidays are a busy time, and it can be hard to fit [...] exercise into your schedule, but it’s really important to make the time to stay healthy. Regularly exercising four to five times per week is an important part of maintaining heart health and preventing heart disease,” he explains. “It’s better to exercise for 30 minutes than not at all. Set aside time, choose workouts that you love, and give yourself small incentives for working out.”
It’s not that your grandmother’s pumpkin pie is actually that delectable (sorry, Granny), but it sure fulfills your sweet tooth when you’re fielding passive-aggressive text messages from your sister. That’s why Bedard says to ask yourself a pointed question before you reach for the sugar: "Who is really hungry?” By asking this, you’re giving yourself a breath to truly figure out your motivation instead of merely giving into impulse. “This question creates a space and awareness within yourself to listen. We all know that just because you are thinking about food does not necessarily mean that you are hungry. When a craving come[s] in, ask the question and listen for an answer,” he says. "Often, you will find you weren’t actually hungry for a piece of cake, but rather your heart was hungry, not your stomach. You cannot feed your heart cake, but you can feed it kindness, compassion and love.”
It’s estimated more than 350 million people battle or experience depression, winter being the season most feel those anxieties intensify. It’s easy to hole up in your home and hide away from the sadness, but Bedard says it’s even more important to accept you’re normal and that, yes, you will get through this period. This is Step 1 of recovery. With therapy, specific lights and having candid, supportive conversations with trusted loved ones, you can overcome seasonal sadness.
“The simple act of practicing loving kindness for ourselves and the parts of us that are in some sort of pain [is] an invaluable tool for creating wellness,” he adds.
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