This is hardly a situation you’re unfamiliar with: every year, around the end of October, your diet and exercise regimen starts to go off the rails. Between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the innumerable smaller events often surrounding them, there is more – much more – than enough opportunity to derail even the most diligent fitness lifestyle. As such, let’s take a look at some ways to mitigate this damage.
Focus on people, not food.
This is an absolutely central point – perhaps the central point to all of the recommendations I can give about how to manage the holidays. While many of these will end up technical, tactical, practical tips and tricks to make better food choices and cram in your exercise when you might not want to do it, this is a near-philosophical change which will fundamentally alter your overarching approach to eating around the holidays – and indeed, in your life in general.
Traditionally, discussions relating to the holidays have seemed to me to be very food-focused. Admittedly, I was raised primarily in the United States, and it’s possible this colors my judgment in a way which makes it partially or entirely irrelevant to those in other cultures. However, given the centrality of eating in the human experience (as a result of its absolute necessity for survival), I do think there is a very real and widespread risk of weighing food itself more heavily than those with whom we surround ourselves over the holidays. In doing so, we risk not only negatively affecting our health and body composition, but also missing what should, I think, be the whole point of the experience: community.
Thus, I suggest making a very conscious decision to perceive food as a secondary consideration over the holidays. Yes, you need to eat, and yes, you should enjoy what you eat, and yes, the holidays present a prime opportunity to really enjoy what you eat, but don’t do this at the expense of human interaction. While I hardly consider myself a fountain of wisdom at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I’ve seen people very obviously put food at the forefront of their holiday experience and, perhaps ironically but certainly importantly, I’ve noticed those people are rarely among the happiest present. Instead, seek balance.
Realize you can still eat normally most of the holiday season.
When you think about it, “the holidays” is an umbrella term that refers to one to three events, depending on whether or not you personally practice and count Halloween and Thanksgiving. Thus, panicking over a perceived inability to eat right throughout the holidays represents a weird sort of arithmetic problem, in that you’re most likely still going to be able to eat in exactly the same way, or at least in an acceptable way, most of the time.
Thus, it ultimately falls on each of us to ascertain exactly what our externally-imposed limitations actually are, and then take advantage of the (pretty extreme, in this case) freedom we have within those.
Beware the alcohol trap.
Let me be clear from the get-go: I’m not going to tell you to avoid drinking during the holidays. However, let’s also be cognizant of the risks involved in getting completely hammered.
I’ve noticed that traditionally articles relating to alcohol focus on its calorie content, rather than its behavioral effects. I think this is very much missing the point. While alcohol’s calorie content isn’t irrelevant – it’s far from calorie-free, and may actually have net negative satiating effects due to its wide-ranging hormonal effects – the reality is that most people can probably very easily overeat far more calories than they’re likely to consume via alcohol. Now, normally one is probably very unlikely to do this, and even in a holiday context there are going to be some inhibitions at play. And that, I think, is the biggest role of alcohol in holiday binging; in lowering already-lowered inhibitions, it results in overeating above and beyond what would be happening anyway. The result is the addition of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of additional calories. So enjoy, responsibly.
Be flexible about your activity.
I don’t know exactly why, but the human mind is prone to a cognitive distortion called dichotomous or black-and-white thinking. When this distortion arises, we perceive the existence of only two possibilities: yes or no, on or off, black or white, short or tall, and so on. To be sure, there are cases – innumerable cases – in which there are only two options at hand, but this becomes problematic when it is assumed as a default, as alternative options are neglected as a function of their not even being considered.
In the context of fitness over the holidays, dichotomous thinking can be especially damaging. With one’s obligations and scheduling in flux, it can indeed be unusually difficult to adhere to one’s usual diet and exercise regimen. However, it is a mistake to simply throw one’s hands up at this point, as there exists a practically infinite number of ways to maintain or improve one’s fitness, particularly during what is, in the grand scheme of things, an extremely brief period of time.
Thus, while I can certainly appreciate a determination to maintain strict adherence year-round, I’d nonetheless encourage an openness to the midnight stroll, the early-morning bodyweight workout, or the unexpected yoga class; it seems to me all of these, despite probably being relatively unusual for this audience, are likely worthwhile as the occasional holiday excursion.