Christmas can make or break your fitness regime – and support or scupper your plans for a New Year filled with vitality
Christmas is just around the corner and everyone is dreaming of spending quality time with their loved ones. However, there are health challenges related to festive food and drink, and other lifestyle choices, which often cause severe health damage, requiring a New Year’s resolution (your own personal Tier 3 diet and fitness lockdown) to correct.
This scenario is repeated every year with many individuals suffering the same negative impact, wondering how come they have ended up here again?!
Einstein defined insanity as, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” We need to change our approach this year for a great Christmas!
Therefore, please would you kindly reflect on your past Christmas experiences:
- Are you happy with them?
- What would you do differently this year?
What can we do this year to change the pattern and end up with positive results to avoid the need for draconian New Year’s resolutions?
Could we make the festive season an opportunity to optimise our health, rather than sabotaging it and so requiring a lot of effort to undo the damage in the New Year?
This may help you to focus your energy on optimising your health and attaining a higher level of fitness by 1st January – while many others sadly will use the same energy to undermine their health during the festive season.
Use your energy for construction rather than destruction!
This mantra has become particularly important in view of Covid-19. The challenge for everyone has been, and remains, to keep a higher level of health and fitness, in order to survive the current pandemic.
I will limit the discussion in this article to health issues related to the festive season.
Every year, the festive season brings a tsunami of health problems, due to human beings’ tendency to shift to very unhealthy lifestyles, including a huge consumption of food full of sugar, refined carbs and fat, high alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity and sleep deprivation.
In addition to upset stomachs, people often visit hospital with more serious conditions such as a heart attack or stroke. The rate of viral infections and more serious chest infections like pneumonia or asthma attacks also skyrockets over the Christmas period.
The festive time is not the right time for gaining weight according to the genes we have inherited from our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers. They had plenty of food in summer, and they stored excess energy as fat to be consumed during the harsh winter, when they had limited food supplies.
Health and disease are two sides of the same coin
People think of health and disease as separate entities. But they should stop focusing on disease-causing behaviour and concentrate instead on health-generating behaviour.
How fit and healthy are you now? How fit and healthy could you be? How fit and healthy do you want to be?
Biological markers such as BMI and WHR (waist-hip ratio), fat mass %, blood pressure, blood sugar can help you to find out where are you now and help you monitor your progress until you reach your health destination.
Many people pack on the pounds during the Halloween to Christmas period. The British Heart Foundation found that Christmas lunch provides more calories than are needed for the whole day. It would be sensible not only to remove the turkey skin, but also to take more vegetables low in calories and high in fibre and nutrients, such as celery, cucumber and kale. Again, eating slowly, chewing your food to enjoy the taste and flavour, can also prevent the seasonal weight gain.
Excess alcohol can ruin not only the drinker’s but also other people’s health. There is significant rise in alcohol-related assaults and drink-driving over Christmas and the New Year. There is also of course an increase in alcohol poisoning.
There are always more deaths in winter compared with the rest of the year. This is mostly due to respiratory infections. Statistics reveal that pneumonia hospital admissions are five times the level in December compared with August. There is also a rise in the number of patients admitted with asthma attacks.
Divorce cases peak
Family arguments also rise during Christmas, with a trend of higher marriage and relationship breakdowns in January than any other time of the year. A lawyer friend of mine always braces himself for an avalanche of divorce cases in the early months of each year.
Loneliness is a common problem people face after Christmas. This explains the fall in suicide rates during Christmas, followed by a sharp rise in January.
The combination of loneliness, anxiety, guilt and over-indulgence results in pressure to adopt good habits, to at least undo the damage that happened during the festive season.
Holiday periods can be stressful in terms of gift-giving, food and alcohol consumption, and time demands. This can stress people enough to give them a temporary feeling of sadness or loss, often viewed as “holiday blues.” The solution is to avoid isolation and seek connection. This includes connecting with the universe by pursuing more outdoor activities.
Vitamin D insufficiency is a major factor in contributing to winter blues, because of inadequate sunshine in December. These patients can benefit from a quality supplement and exposure to bright light in the morning to help their circadian rhythm.
I would urge you not to rely on a New Year’s resolution, as these usually fail within the first two weeks! Buying a gym membership or diet program is often a waste of money, because it is simply a reaction to the poor health behaviour you inflicted on yourself during the festive season. This is why it makes more sense to correct your eating habits and other lifestyle choices in the first place.
How can I enjoy the festive season healthily?
Festive problems are often related to our intake of sugar or alcohol to excess. This changes our body shape and makes us gain weight, making us look bad and feel miserable.
Most people do not have a pre-set plan for the festive season, so they act haphazardly and eventually end up with a series of entirely preventable problems.
Christmas should be seen as an opportunity. We have time off to re-engage with family and friends. Sometimes, this can either make you or break you – and without a plan, you can easily end up on the wrong route.
You probably need to expand your options for pleasure beyond sugar and alcohol. You can create a healthy festive environment, inspired by real food, sport, and social and spiritual well-being.
You may want to give yourself a little pep talk and say, “I’m not going to drink alcohol this Christmas and I’ll limit my intake of Christmas food-treats to the big day itself.”
Get a fitness plan – and it’s a marathon, not a sprint!
You may also want to pursue an exercise program to optimise your fitness and muscle strength to get ready for a competition. You may want to incentivise yourself to complete your first 5km in the local parkrun, or your own virtual run or private time trial – on 1st January, if possible!
If you are already a good runner, you are likely to be thinking bigger and maybe aiming to complete your first marathon early in 2021.
To be successful in these ways, you need to raise your awareness. Most people on autopilot indulge in drinking and eating junk food, sleepwalking their way to ill-health.
With your plan in place, you can continue to appraise any delinquent thoughts that cross your mind. Respond positively to those aligned with your values and overall health plan. This helps you focus your efforts on actions that help you progress steadily towards your desired goals.
You have to stay positive and mindful during the festive season to reap the intrinsic rewards of the season’s gifts of happiness, connection, love and relaxation – gifts that you deserve – so that you can charge your batteries for a wonderful New Year.
It would be sensible to choose the people you want to be with and set your Christmas plan with clear goals, always understanding exactly why you want to achieve them. Following this will motivate you and provide you with enough willpower to make the best out of the festive season.
You need to understand that cake, biscuits, chocolate, etc. and alcohol are just different forms of sugar. They all stimulate the pancreas to release more of the fat storage hormone, which results in people getting fatter, duller and more listless by the end of the season.
Therefore, it is crucial to have a simple food and activity plan, to improve your cells’ sensitivity to insulin. Prompting your pancreas to produce less insulin to bring the level down is your only chance to switch to fat burning – and losing weight.
Detox + de-stress = delight
During the festive season you need to look after your detox organs, including the liver, the lungs, skin, bowels and bladder. Have adequate fibre, bitter foods such as lemon or lime, apple cider vinegar to increase bile flow, and brassica family vegetables to support the second phase of detoxification. Take vitamin C with animal proteins to prevent associated oxidative stress.
Also, it is important to detox your mind in order to improve your thinking, in term of focus, problem solving and the decision-making process.
You’ll learn to convert distress into eustress. Set up actual or virtual group activities – maybe a hiking group, do more cooking, schedule relaxation and sporting sessions. Ignite your willpower and your motivation for optimal health and vitality.
You need to set a contingency plan in case there is no way to avoid alcohol altogether. The plan should focus on reducing the number of drinks and the negative impact of alcohol on your health.
Be present, mindful, and ask yourself serious questions and discuss any thought or idea that lands into your head before you take any action. This is in contradiction to the majority of people who are running on autopilot.
Adopting anti-inflammatory food is going to reduce the inflammation in your body. This includes whole real food that your great grandmother would recognise, like low sugar fruit and vegetables, healthy fat, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
By contrast, inflammatory food represents the western diet of sugar, refined carbs and fast food.
In order to stick to a healthy diet, you may want to carry healthy food around with you, if you do not expect to find healthy options.
Avoid food you don’t have control over, such as sugar, caffeine, alcohol and unhealthy snacks like chocolate and crisps.
Exercise, relax, be grateful, have fun
Focusing on exercise will shift your mind away from unhealthy food and will motivate you towards other healthy lifestyle choices, such as adequate sleep and relaxation.
Schedule time for relaxation techniques, including deep breathing (pranayama), meditation, sunshine and walking in nature – either on your own or with online groups.
Practise gratitude – write down three things in your life each day that you are grateful for.
Supplements to take during the festive season should include vitamin B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D3, magnesium, fish oil and probiotics.
Have fun: converting an activity into something fun will help you to perform it on a regular basis.
One of the great practices I have learnt over the last few years is to keep my patients and friends connected in a community. There, they share their experiences with people with the same goals, support each other, and become accountable to each other, in order to enhance their life in the best possible way.
This is a very powerful strategy to persuade people to change their behaviour and adopt a healthy lifestyle. I am not aware of any intervention that delivers better results than the community model of health. I have become extremely excited about it and have taught the model at The Vitality Clinic courses to help people transform their lives.
In view of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the social gatherings and the community activities are happening online. This has become the norm. I know our local health group kept in touch over the last few months on various meeting platforms, supporting and motivating each other to stay healthy.
Surviving and recovering from Christmas
Finally, my friends, here two simple seven-point plans for your optimum health during and after Christmas.
During Christmas, try to:
- Eat food where you can control its portion size and sugar content
- Spend quality time with your loved ones in a way that reduces stress
- Eat five differently coloured fruits and vegetables for antioxidants
- Stay fully hydrated
- Eat clean grass-fed animal protein
- Incorporate activity and movement into your Christmas schedule
- Be mindful of your need for sleep
After Christmas, get your spirit back by:
- Making a plan for 2021
- Watching what you eat
- Keeping active and moving
- Catching up with your sleep
- Refreshing your social life
- Getting your finances in order
- Being motivated to start your best year yet
As always, my friends, if you have any questions at all about this subject, please do not hesitate to contact me. I wish you a very happy and healthy Christmas, and a New Year filled with vitality!