Once again the holidays attacked us! That joyous time of year for giving thanks and celebrating faith, family, and friends, even as days grow shorter, nights colder, and frozen water coats much of this great land to add a fun bit of peril to even the simplest forays out. We’re good at making the most of it, though, taking the opportunity to ease into the heart of winter by focusing on the more festive aspects of the season, looking inward – literally and figuratively – to spend time with loved ones and cocooning in the warmth of home, and preparing for the push through January and February’s biting cold. (Note: This may not apply to the South and Southwest. I don’t really know what you all – sorry, “Y’all” – do in the winter. Waterskiing, I imagine, or vigorously shivering when the mercury drops below 60. Please, read on, anyway. We’re going to be talking about food and I know you like talking about food)
So how do we celebrate? We eat, mostly! Eat and drink. A lot. Like all the freakin’ time through at least New Year’s Day. There’s Thanksgiving, of course, and then the seasonal religious holidays that require collective gorging. Office parties, neighborhood parties, your best friend’s party, and the one thrown by that one guy you don’t really know very well but everyone else is going to, so… New Year’s Eve demands its due, and what else is there to do on January 1st, really, but snack on the couch and try to recover from last night’s festivities? Oh, yeah… Bowl Games require sustenance, too.
And if your department is anything like mine, there’s no escaping the holiday feasting even at work; leftover pies and original creations by amateur pastry chefs, mountains of homemade cookies and confections, and the offerings of grateful citizens and local restauranteurs who “just want to say ‘Thanks for all you do! (Please, have some diabetes on us!)’” It’d be rude to let anything go to waste.
Have you ever noticed that no one ever seems to bring in a fresh tropical fruit plate or veggie tray? Weird, huh?
Now, neither of us are dainty, celery munching waifs peering down our noses as you stuff your pockets with those cookies with the Hershey’s kisses pressed into the top (technical name: Peanut Butter Blossoms). Before January hits we’ll each likely find crumbs in the bottoms of own pockets now and again. We both appreciate good food, quality hooch, and enjoying all the treats the season offers. I recently read somewhere that some scientists equate the health benefits of a glass of red wine to an hour in the gym. I don’t know if that’s true or not but, if it is, just the other day I spent about 5 (maybe 6… or 7) hours at the gym. Be impressed…
But, being people who really enjoy good food and drink, we also know how easy it is to let seasonal temptations get the best of us, to let personal responsibility for our health and fitness be overwhelmed by the short, cold days and the holiday pressures and obligations, and to just figure, “Screw it! I’ll eat healthy and exercise again next year!” We also understand human psychology and how that just may not be enough to overcome bad habits formed when willpower is inconvenient.
Other factors play into how winter challenges us and our efforts to eat and live healthily. For those living and working where cold weather, snow and ice, and diminished daylight conspire to drive us inside, our activity levels can drop precipitously even as we believe we’re still living an active lifestyle. Long runs, outdoor sports, and leisurely dog walks give way to seeking warmth and staying dry. In a way, it’s hardly a choice but rather an evolutionary imperative; when confronted with inclement weather our ancient ancestors – the ones who survived to pass along their genes, anyway – hunkered down for the sake of not freezing to death or being eaten in the dark. Although we’ve evolved, as have our skills and clothing, to better understand and overcome the climatic dangers our instinct tells us to go inside.
Shift work, as cops know, can be especially grueling in the winter. Starting and ending the same shift in the dark saps motivation to do anything after work and, if you happen to work overnights, it’s possible to go days without being exposed to any sustained sunlight. Even at work, getting out of the car and moving around can be a chore.
The combination of poor diet, subpar weather, and shortened days can leave us feeling lethargic and out of shape. They need not, however, and steps can be taken to keep from falling into a carbohydrate and crankiness-induced funk that burdens your health and happiness in the long run. Some of these are:
Remember Portion Control
All things in moderation, it is said, but how hard is that when you have seventeen different bite-sized options just begging to be sampled? It doesn’t take long to add up. One of our desk officers brings an enormous Tupperware container of “fun-size” candies to work every day, not because he eats them but to share with whichever shift happens to be working. Now, a single candy bar as a midday snack isn’t a big deal for most of us but knocking back six mini Snickers, three tiny York Peppermint Patties, a handful (give or take) of the little Hershey Special Darks, and five Caramel Bulls-Eyes at once is neither smart nor hard to do (“But I only had the little ones!”)
Psychologically, the same thing happens when we’re faced with an array of choices, all of which we want. Portion control means planning on self-discipline and then sticking with the plan. You don’t have to try everything every time.
The same holds true even for the non-dessert offerings (some of which get the holiday treatment to become essentially desserts despite their healthy roots… candied yams, anyone?).
Eat Healthy First
Fill up on healthier options before diving into the cookie tray, and that means all day long. Start with breakfast, which too many of us ignore altogether, and remember to stick with high protein/low carbs, with the carbs you are eating being predominantly whole grains. Fruits are always a much better source of dietary sugars than peppermint bark, and will keep you going longer and without a mid-morning “carb crash.” Snack healthy throughout the day, and leave little room for gorging on treats.
Be Intentional About Exercise
When winter’s challenges work against our motivation to be active it just means you have to become more intentional about staying fit. Whether that means going indoors and hitting the treadmill and weights instead of long runs through the park, choosing to brave the elements to keep routines going, or finding new physical outlets, do what it takes.
Intentionality has an added benefit: late fall and winter are notorious for pushing some people into the “doldrums,” and it is a real thing. Many of us are more susceptible to depression with the reduced sunlight, dreary weather, and limits of the season; staying physically active and goal-oriented are highly effective counters to those effects.
Set Physical Fitness Goals, Establish Challenges, and Learn New Things
Now is a great time to get outside the box. Hiring a “personal trainer” is as easy as downloading one of the many smart phone apps available to guide you through whatever goals you aspire to. Bored with the gym, or looking to expand your repertoire? Give yoga a try and be surprised at all it can do for you physically and mentally. Haven’t played an organized sport since high school or college? Join a league and enjoy not just the exercise but also the social networking it provides. Need motivation to get out and keep moving? Pick up a fitness tracker. These little devices can be as simple as a $20 pocket device that simply counts the number of steps you take each day, or cost several hundred dollars and track not only steps, but heartrate, sleep patterns, metabolic activity, and other functions to guide fitness goals. Look around the department and you’ll surely see a number of your peers sporting trackers. Ask around and you’ll get a lot of tips and suggestions.
One of the simplest objectives to work toward is a step goal. We each try to attain 10,000 steps each day, regardless of how they are achieved. This roughly equates to walking five miles over the course of a day. Use a step tracker for about a week to determine your baseline “step activity” and then start setting goals, such as adding 500 steps per day until you achieve the baseline you want. This will force you to become creative in achieving your goal.
Maintaining healthy diet and exercise routines is challenged during the winter months, especially during the holiday season, but is not impossible. Staying on top of it even allows for plenty of indulgence, as long as you stay smart.