Holiday soirées, cold wintery weather, insane schedules, cookies galore: It’s no wonder our health and fitness goals get lost in the holiday hustle. Don’t worry—no, really, don’t worry about this on top of everything else—instead, take some advice from health experts to bolster your family’s wellbeing all month long.
During this overindulgent month, even dedicated health-nuts can lose focus. We know by now that good nutrition is essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and what we eat can affect energy, mood, and willpower. But that doesn’t make it any easier when you are facing platters of sweets and rich foods.
If you are navigating a dozen holiday parties this December, registered dietitian and nutritionist Jessica Crandall, CDE spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has some basic advice: “Plan in advance.” Then, use mindful solutions to stay on track.
Find out what’s on the party menu. If you’re up against queso, puff pastries, and jalapeño poppers, Crandall says, offer to bring a veggie tray or another healthy treat.
Pile vegetables on first. Whether you’re fixing a plate for yourself or your children, start with veggies, then reach for nuts, lean meats, and cheese. “Protein and produce will make you feel full,” says Crandall.
Eat a meal beforehand. If you’re headed to a cookie exchange or happy hour, don’t go hungry; eat a little something before you leave home.
Eat slowly and socialize. “Parents should try to focus on the social aspect of the party, rather than the food,” says Crandall. That same rule holds for kids. “Get them outside playing, building snowmen, or having a snowball fight.”
Drink water. “Make sure you’re well hydrated because dehydration can send false hunger signals,” says Crandall. Also, encourage youngsters to drink water, rather than sugary ciders and juices; try to make cocoa a treat, and not a daily indulgence. When you’re reaching for the eggnog, keep in mind that one 6-ounce serving contains 400 calories and 14 grams of fat. Have a sip, and then switch to wine or vodka with, say, diet tonic water and a twist of lime.
“Don’t be crazy-restrictive,” Crandall says, “Indulgence is part of the holidays.”
Physical activity is a powerful way to promote health and bust stress over the holidays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend parents get at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate exercise weekly, but, says Ashton Atilano, fitness manager at Chuze Fitness, “Studies show many people are exercising less and eating more, especially during the winter months.”
If the cold puts a damper on your regular walks, runs, or bike rides, try out a cold-weather sport instead, such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Atilano recommends ice-skating—which burns up to 400 calories an hour—sledding, or walking the neighborhood to view holiday lights.
Physical activity doesn’t have to feel like a chore. “Turn on some holiday tunes, and dance together as a family,” Atilano suggests. And remember: You don’t have to meet your weekly exercise quota all at once; 10 minutes here and there adds up.
“A lot of studies say 80 percent of parents feel stressed over the holidays, but I”d argue the number is higher,” says Sara Knickerbocker, Ph.D., a nationally certified school psychologist and owner of The CORE Psychology. “If people have had difficult family relationships or are navigating multiple households, that can trigger stress,” she says.
Crazy relatives aren’t necessary to increase holiday stress; the gap between our expectations and reality is a major anxiety activator.Advertisements portray happy families gathered around perfectly set tables. “Something happens that differs from the storybook expectation, and we feel discouraged,” says Knickerbocker. That disconnect creates stress—and so does the drastic schedule change that many families experience in December. Between school days off, vacation time, and late-night gatherings, Knickerbocker says, “The environmental supports that give us a sense of stability break down.”
Parents can manage expectations by accepting that the holidays needn’t be perfect. “Set your own expectations with your spouse,” Knickerbocker says. Lay down a budget for entertaining and gift giving, and agree to a schedule. “You can’t go to every party on every weekend night for the entire month,” reminds Knickerbocker. “Instead, pick a few special parties and traditions, and participate in those.”
Kids aren’t immune to holiday stress. They might become more tearful, agitated, or moody. “Children often demonstrate stress by seeking control over things that seem inconsequential,” says Knickerbocker. Choose your battles. “Having a picture of everyone in their party clothes and your son in his Batman pajamas might end up being a more valuable memory over time. Instead of putting pressure on your child to shape up, take a step back. It’s OK to stop a plan mid-action to alleviate stress.”
Knickerbocker says the holiday season is a great time to work on ‘sleep hygiene,” or those routines that cue our bodies to relax.
“Sleep is one of the most restorative tools our bodies have,” she says. Turn off the screens at least half an hour before bedtime, and, when possible, avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed. (We know, we know!)
“The other important thing,” Knickerbocker says, “is to reach out for help if you’re struggling.” Talk to a trusted friend, mental health professional, or someone in your spiritual community. “If you find your mind racing with all of the things you need to do better, stop and take a moment to appreciate all of the things you are already doing well,” she counsels. Above all, remember it’s the connections with the people in your life that matter most this month.
Dash Toward Health
Try these festive activities to make winter workouts fun.
Rudolph Ramble 5K: Help Santa find Rudolph on December 4, 10 a.m. at City Park, complete with a series of racecourse clues. rundenverseries.com
Jingle Bell Run: Don’t miss the Snowman Scramble and Kids Fun Run at 9:45 a.m., followed by a 10 a.m. run/walk at Washington Park, December 11, hosted by the Arthritis Foundation. jbr.org
Combine movies with movement at Chuze Fitness, where you can burn calories on a stationary bike, treadmill, or elliptical machine while watching your favorite holiday films on the big screen. chuzefitness.com
Track your steps at the Denver Botanic Gardens” Blossoms of Light at York Street, Trail of Lights at Chatfield Farms, and Zoo Lights at the Denver Zoo. botanicgardens.org, denverzoo.org
Double the Benefit
Yoga is not only great physical activity, but it will keep stress levels down as well, says Ashton Atilano, fitness manager at Chuze Fitness.
Tempted to overindulge at holiday parties? Enjoy filling pre-party snacks to take the edge off of hunger, or bring some along to share.
- Apple slices and homemade pumpkin dip (blend Greek yogurt, fiber-packed pumpkin puree, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a drop of vanilla)
- Skewers strung with mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, chicken cubes, and basil
- Banana bread made with whole-wheat flour and applesauce