Thanksgiving is just days away, and I know that we’re already full tilt into holiday prep. Not only is our chicken thawing in the refrigerator, but our Christmas tree is up, the garland is on the mantle, and a Christmas album might have been heard playing this weekend…
In other words, the holidays have arrived.
When it comes to maintaining healthy habit momentum, there are multiple directions you can go in terms of handling the holidays.
Do everything exactly as normal. Follow your typical way of eating, say “no” to the things you normally would, and log all your workouts right on schedule.
On the other hand, you can shelve your healthy habits for a month, and trust yourself that you’re going to re-invigorate your workouts and nutrition in January.
Or you can do something more in the middle.
First off, I want to say that there are certainly people for whom the first two options are the right options. For varying reasons, it may be the right choice for someone to stick closely to their normal way of eating and exercising, even when these habits conflict with a holiday tradition or treat. On the other hand, it may be the right choice for someone to really kick back and enjoy a season of flexibility and rest.
But – in my opinion – the vast majority of people will benefit more from an approach that’s closer to the middle, with smart “edits” made to both the typical training/eating routines and the typical approach to holiday over-indulgence.
Here are 10 tips for maintaining balance over the holidays, so that you can continue to invest energy into your healthy lifestyle momentum, but also grant yourself grace and flexibility to fully enjoy your festive traditions.
Tip #1: Consider taking a maintenance break.
I wrote about this last year at length, but in a nutshell let’s just say that a maintenance break is an intentional plateau. If you’re on a weight loss journey, it can be tempting to get stuck in binary thinking that you’re either gaining, or you’re losing. You’re either going in the “right direction” (i.e., the scale is going down) or you’re going in the “wrong direction” (the scale is going up). When you’re in that place, it’s easy to forget that there’s a third option – the scale staying roughly the same.
If you’re on a weight loss journey, it can be a radical act to give yourself grace and let yourself stop losing weight for the holidays, so that you can be more flexible (especially with food).
Tip #2: Detach exercise from healthy eating.
When it comes to the holidays, the bigger problem for most people isn’t exercise – it’s the over-indulgence of the food environment we’re swimming in until the new year. But the way these things go is that people often write off their exercise habits once food starts going “off track.” But the reality is that these two habits are not necessarily bundled. You can eat unhealthfully (let’s just call it that) but maintain a healthy, consistent exercise routine. You can even, yes, exercise on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas morning if you want.
The benefit is that exercise helps with everything from actual physical health to weight management to mood. So don’t drop your exercise routines just because you’re feeling “blah” about your eating. The exercise will really help with feeling better, regulating your appetite, and maintaining your habits.
Tip #3: Continue most healthy food habits.
The problem with “the holidays” as an amorphous, 30+ day celebration is that we forget that there are literally only a few true holidays, with lots of mostly normal days in between. Yes, it’s likely that over-indulgence is going to happen several times in November and December, but the reality is that you can easily absorb the impact of these few days by maintaining the rest of your good habits in the meantime.
Keep meal prepping. Keep eating a higher protein, higher fiber diet. Keep focusing on getting in your vegetables. Keep drinking plenty of water. Observe your portion sizes and snacking habits. By keeping your overall diet packed with real nutrition, you can handle the ups and downs of rich, celebratory meals.
Tip #4: Pick a fun exercise goal.
It is genius that there are so many 5K’s around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I highly encourage my clients to take advantage of this. During November and December, it’s a great idea to pick some new goals that are performance-related. This means that they’re not weight-loss related, but instead an exercise accomplishment. We too often forget that exercise can yield measurable, exciting progress that’s not weight loss. You can do amazing things in just 5-6 weeks, like speed up your 5K (or run your first one!), or start working on pull-ups, or stick with a manageable “exercise challenge” for a few weeks.
By picking something that’s fun and appealing, you transform exercise from a chore into a game.
Tip #5: Integrate your family and friends.
One of the biggest challenges of the “holiday season” is actually peer pressure. It’s not the fact that we are intrinsically motivated to consume lots of cookies, pie, casseroles, and alcohol this time of year. It’s that other people are doing it too, and there’s a general social pressure to conform.
A fantastic way to up-level peer pressure and to use it to your advantage is to integrate your family and friends into your healthy habits. Can you start a step challenge with your family, where family members compete for the most steps (using something like a FitBit) in December? Can you run/walk a 5K as a family? Can you somehow use a healthy, fun sense of competition to encourage enjoyable movement as a family? This turns peer pressure on its head and helps you move with healthy momentum.
Tip #6: Enjoy your favorites.
This is a common tip that I give clients. Instead of feeling like you “can’t have” your holiday favorites, genuinely ask yourself: “What are my holiday favorites?” It’s quite possible you don’t like everything that’s on the table, but that you eat it anyway because it’s there or because someone put it on your plate. The reality is that you do not have to eat food that you don’t really like or enjoy.
I’m not talking about saying “no” to foods from a dietary perspective (i.e., “That’s really high in fat! I’m going to skip that!”). I mean truly foods that you don’t care for or don’t want at the moment. If you are not a dessert person, there is really no reason to eat dessert. If you don’t like green bean casserole, there is really no reason to eat green bean casserole. If you’re stuffed and simply don’t want to have any more, stop. Just because something is a tradition, or because someone cooked it, doesn’t mean you have to eat it.
On the other hand, I encourage clients to really enjoy the foods they love. Skip what you don’t really like, but enjoy the things you do, without guilt.
Tip #7: Drink sensibly.
The CDC guidelines for healthy, moderate alcohol intake are far lower than most people think (I’ve written about it here). Just like with desserts and cheesy, creamy, goo-ey sides, it’s typical that people over-indulge in alcohol over the holidays, too. Not only is alcohol caloric and somewhat difficult for the body to process, but when people imbibe, their inhibitions typically get lowered and they drink and eat more, too.
I recommend a few sensible strategies to moderate and ameliorate alcohol intake – they include staying hydrated with water, eating a protein-rich food with your first drink, and making an effort to skip “every other” drink by replacing it with a non-alcoholic beverage. This can really help with feeling better faster after holidays.
Tip #8: Minimize the frequency of indulgence.
Most of the truly junky, weight-gain-related eating that people do does not happen at a family holiday dinner (this is largely why I say not to worry about these meals too much). It happens at the office, at the fourth holiday party you’ve attended in a week, at the church function, or at your kid’s holiday concert.
Holiday events have a way of stacking up, and this is something to look out for. When something’s not an exception anymore, it’s a new normal. If you have regular healthy habits of avoiding excess sugar, moderating your carbohydrates, or limiting heavy fats, the holidays can pose a severe disruption to these health-promoting strategies, and your “normal” can insidiously change as you make exception after exception.
It can be really smart to differentiate between times when you want to be more indulgent, and times that you really just want to treat like a “normal” day. When does it make sense to be a little “stricter,” instead of just going with the flow? You get to choose.
Tip #9: Focus on health-promoting behaviors, instead of “sticking to” something.
This is a major mental re-frame that I guide many clients to.
Just switch up the way you think about healthy habits. Instead of it being something you have to “stick to,” re-frame your healthy habits as deposits you make into a bank account.
During challenging, busy times, it can be such a refreshing break to make this mental switch.
Don’t sweat the times when you lapse from your intentions, as if you’ve fallen “off track.” Instead, take every opportunity you can to make as many “deposits” as you can. Deposits can include:
- Taking a walk, run, or bike ride
- Doing a workout
- Eating a vegetable
- Eating a fruit
- Planning and preparing meals for the week
- Saying no to one “unhealthy” food at an easy moment
… and many more. Just focus on stacking up as many health-promoting behaviors as you can, and don’t worry about those times when things get a little disorganized or irregular.
Tip #10: Take care of your mental health.
There is a forthcoming blog post on this topic, but something to remember this time of year can be a challenge for several reasons.
First, even though the holidays are depicted as a warm, cozy time that we reconnect with family and friends, this may not track with reality. For many of us, the holidays can be a disturbing time both in terms of family and finances. Be kind to yourself about stress and anxiety you may experience about family events, and consider talking with someone about strategies for handling difficult family situations. The holidays are not a script that we have to follow – we have choices about how we celebrate.
Secondly, SAD is real! Seasonal Affective Disorder (and the winter blues more commonly) happen because of the reduction in sunlight during the day. One of the best things you can do is avoid a vegetative state – keep staying active outside, especially in the morning. If you can walk or run outdoors in the light, do it. Light therapy can be very effective for preventing the winter blues and SAD, as well – you can purchase light boxes that simulate sunlight at 10,000 lux and use it for 30 minutes every morning to improve your mental health. You may also need to talk to someone about getting help for your SAD – a professional will be able to tailor and personalize a plan for you.
Your mental health is not only just as important as your physical health, but is also difficult to separate from it. When mental health suffers, we often stop taking care of our bodies, too. We sit around more, sleep more, and reach more quickly for high-calorie foods. You don’t have to move to the Caribbean during the winter, however – you can reclaim your mood and spirits in the winter with a little help.
What Really Works for You?
Which of these tips speaks most to you? What feels most practical, realistic, and effective?