The holidays have a way of throwing off our routines — even during a typical year. With added levels of stress and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be even more challenging than usual to focus on nutritious foods, exercise, and other components of a healthy lifestyle.
First, give yourself some grace. Guilt over an extra dessert or a missed workout is unnecessary and unhelpful. Criticizing yourself, or your family, for imperfection might lead to even more tension and anxiety.
That said, taking care of your health can help you cope better with life’s ups and downs. Plus, poor nutrition and a lack of physical activity can increase your risk of other health problems in the long run, from obesity to heart disease to certain cancers. Some of these conditions also put you at an increased risk for complications from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
You might have to be a little more creative to ease stress and incorporate movement this fall and winter. But if 2020 has brought anything, it’s a mindset of flexibility. Here are some strategies to try this holiday season.
Focus on the Positives
Instead of dwelling on what will happen if you eat poorly and stay sedentary, consider the perks of eating better and getting moving.
If you eat a healthy diet, you’ll live longer and reduce your risk for chronic health conditions — or manage the ones you already have. The perks of exercise begin nearly immediately after a workout and include reduced anxiety and depression and better sleep.
Don’t Deny Yourself Family Favorites
Many traditional holiday foods wouldn’t necessarily appear on a list of the healthiest dishes. They’re often high in calories, saturated fat, or added sugars.
That’s OK — you can still enjoy them. Just choose one or two of your favorites, and eat them in small portions. Balance them out with vegetables or other nutrient-rich ingredients.
You can also try modifying recipes — for instance, grilling or baking your proteins instead of frying them, or swapping out heavy cream for lighter versions. Or, try an entirely new dish. You might find a new holiday favorite.
Sneak in Extra Vegetables
Good nutrition isn’t all about what you don’t eat, anyway — it’s often just as important to add in more nourishing nutrients. After all, fewer than one in 10 children and adults eat enough vegetables, the CDC reports.
Eating more plants can ensure you get enough essential vitamins and minerals. Try slicing up raw veggies and keeping them bagged in the fridge as snacks — they’re far easier to grab when they’re already bite-sized. Add beans or peas to soups and salads.
Turn Your Plate into a Party
Another simple, festive trick to up your fruit and veggie intake? Eat as much of the rainbow as you can. Orange citrus fruits, bright-red tomatoes, purple eggplants and berries, and dark, leafy greens all contain different vitamins and minerals.
At each meal, see if you can introduce one more hue to your main or side dish. Fresh herbs add a dash of green to brothy soups; orange and red peppers can brighten up a dull egg dish; berries can provide a pop of blue and purple to yogurt.
Fill Up on Fruits
Some call them nature’s candy — for a good reason. Fruits make excellent desserts, and they’re also a key part of a healthy diet, filled with disease-fighting nutrients. Plus, they’re lower in fat and added sugars than other sweet options.
Cut up melon, papaya, and mango, and top with fruit-flavored yogurt for a tropical treat. Sample a more exotic variety, like pomegranate or star fruit. And when it comes to pies, pumpkin beats pecan — it’s still sweet, but it has about one-third of the sugar and calories.
Start the Day Right
Skipping breakfast will likely only make you hungrier later in the day and more prone to overeating unhealthy foods. Plus, your morning meal represents a prime opportunity to boost your diet with produce. Only 10 percent of foods typically consumed at breakfast are fruits or vegetables, according to the CDC.
Upgrade your day early with a veggie-rich omelet — swap out one egg or half the cheese and stir in spinach, onions, and mushrooms. Slice bananas or strawberries into cereal. Or, try a special holiday-themed bowl — stir dried cranberries or cooked canned pumpkin, and pie spices like nutmeg and cinnamon into oatmeal.
At Night, Sleep Tight
Finishing out the evening with a good night’s rest can also go a long way in keeping you on track. When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to eat mindlessly and crave high-fat, high-sugar foods.
Aim for seven to eight hours a night. Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Keep your bedroom quiet, relaxing, dark — and free of lighted screens, which disrupt your slumber.
An evening routine, such as listening to calming seasonal tunes, can help you wind down. And try not to eat a large, heavy meal too close to bedtime.
Take a Walk
Walking is always an excellent way to fit more activity into your day. Start your mornings with a walk around the block or up and down the stairs. If you have holiday errands, park farther away from your destination so you can get in a few more steps.
When you’re doing sedentary activities — whether working, writing holiday cards, or watching seasonal movies — take periodic breaks for a stroll in your neighborhood. Try to make your motion add up to 150 minutes per week — that's at least 20 minutes a day, or 30 minutes five days a week.
Try Some Music
Weather outside too frightful? Get creative with indoor activities. Turn on your favorite holiday tunes with their spritely rhythms — it’s a sure-fire way to get the whole family moving.
Some gyms or fitness instructors offer holiday exercise challenges, such as doing a certain number of squats or push-ups each day. Search YouTube for options, or start your own. You can award prizes to your family or recruit faraway friends as a way to stay connected.
Make Time for You
Clearing space in your day for activities you enjoy isn’t selfish or a luxury — it’s a critical way of managing stress and your mental health. Whether it's a nap, a hot bath, an engaging book, or relaxing music, carving out a few minutes for you will restore your energy so you can handle the next challenge.
Or, simply unwind and take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that your emotions are valid and real — but even strong ones will fade.
Create New Holiday Memories
Many of our normal holiday activities will look different this year. Plan new activities focused on connection, movement, and fun — and not just around sitting and eating.
Sign up for a turkey trot family run or holiday dash race, either in real life or virtually. Walk-and-talk dates with your family and friends, ice skating, or tak
ing a bike ride past holiday lights — when the weather is safe — can add a festive mood to your day, all while boosting your health and well-being. There's no time like the present to start a new tradition.