No matter how you choose to celebrate, the holidays generally mean a break from work, from routine, and, especially if your plans involve travel, from all your hard-won, healthful habits. Whatever wellness means to you — be it a well-honed diet, a strict workout routine or a daily mindfulness practice — maintaining your healthiest habits and caring about your holiday health can seem all but impossible when you’re visiting home for the holidays.
It’s not, of course, but maintaining your wellness routine in a new environment requires work. We’ve put together a cheat sheet of tips for keeping your wellness habits intact during the most wonderful time of the year.
Holiday health tip 1: Focus on how you’re eating, not what you’re eating
According to fitness expert and coach Andrea Marcellus, portions are more important than what’s on the menu. This goes double during the holidays and maintaining your health.
“It’s really about thinking about how you’re eating as far more important than what you’re eating during the holidays, especially because there are so many more what I call social foods,” Marcellus explains.
Marcellus advocates portion control and scheduled meals over calorie counting or following a strict diet. Counting calories is the last thing anyone wants to do when confronted with a table full of Christmas cookies, so this is a great method to adopt during the holidays. Marcellus outlines her full method in her book, “The Way In,” but here’s the short version: Whenever possible, stick to three meals of about two hand-sized portions of food each, and three snacks of about one hand-sized portion of food each, per day.
“You can’t overeat,” Marcellus explains of the secret to her system’s success. “There’s no willpower involved. That’s what’s so effective about it. And yes, you may go through these couple of weeks where you’re not eating the most beneficial foods, but guess what? You’ll be participating in life. You won’t have the same level of nutrition as you usually do, but your body’s not keeping score like that.”
Marcellus’ approach, which essentially restricts overall caloric intake by limiting portion sizes, is backed by science. A 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine examined long-term dieting and what’s more important for losing weight: the composition of the diet (that is, the proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrates) or caloric intake. The answer: Caloric intake.
This is what Marcellus means when she says your body isn’t keeping score based on the kind of food you’re eating when it comes to weight loss and weight gain, specifically. Obviously, the calories in a one-hand sized portion of cheesecake are greater than the calories in a one-hand sized portion of salad, but the key to this approach is curbing the instinct to have the cheesecake and the holiday cookies and the [insert full list of your own favorite holiday foods here]. By being smart and consistent about portion sizes, you still end up limiting your total daily calories, even if you eat like a literal kid in a candy store for a couple of weeks.
Holiday healthy tip 2: Stand up for your fitness
Your perfectly honed fitness routine can fall apart in a thousand different ways when you travel for the holidays. Maybe your gym doesn’t have any locations in your hometown. Maybe your morning run just doesn’t work in the colder climate you’re visiting. Whatever your specific challenges, staying active during a trip home is never easy.
According to Marcellus, the simplest way to stay active when your schedule is packed with holiday parties and family reunions is to stand as much as possible — ideally, for at least 60 minutes total each day.
“If you can just try to stand at social situations as much as possible, that helps make up for workouts,” she explains.
Does this sound a little too good to be true? Although standing for an hour a day is obviously not an even tradeoff for your usual run or gym routine, a lot of science backs it up. A 2015 study published by the Mayo Clinic reveals that standing for at least a quarter of your day significantly decreases the probability of obesity in both men and women.
Dr. James Levine, a pioneer of the standing desk movement and head of the NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) lab at the Mayo Clinic, says that the average person burns up to 350 calories more per day if they’re moving more, even in simple ways — including standing and fidgeting.
“When you stand at your desk or a party, you don’t just stand: You shift your weight, you dance, you stretch. That burns more than just standing,” Marcellus explains. “Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting.”
Holiday health tip 3: Pull your own weight — literally
If you’re craving more physical activity during your travels than simple standing, brush up on bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, squats, lunges, etc. before you go. Creating a routine that you can do anywhere, without any additional equipment, gives you as much control as possible over your fitness regimen while you’re away. Check out these apps for simple, bodyweight-driven workouts that you can do from anywhere:
Don’t bother obsessing about how many fluid ounces of this and that you’re taking in. Marcellus says to keep two numbers in mind: 80 and 20. The 80 refers to your non-caloric drinks (water, tea, coffee, etc.), and the 20 to liquid calories (including everything from wine at dinner to late-night hot cocoa). The science of this rule is the same as her rule about portion control for meals.
“It doesn’t matter where your calories come from. They are energy, and if you don’t use that energy, you will store it as fat,” she explains. “Caloric drinks are a hidden source of calories many people forget.”
Many people are tempted by even more calorie-containing drinks than usual during the holidays (we’re looking at you, eggnog), so this little rule of thumb can allow room to indulge without going overboard.
One simple but effective mindfulness technique that’s easy to work into a busy day is a body scan. You can perform it anywhere and in any position — sitting, standing, lying down, or even hunched over a pile of yet-to-be-wrapped gifts or a hot stove. Here’s how: take a few deep breaths. Start at the top of your head, scanning all the way down to the soles of your feet, noting how each part of your body feels. Notice things you usually take for granted, like the way your hair feels on your neck or the pressure of your feet on the ground.
Holiday health tip 5: Remember to enjoy the season
When you travel home (or anywhere else) for the holidays, remember that is that it’s called the most wonderful time of the year for a reason. Yes, taking time out from your routine to enjoy family traditions can be jarring and take its toll, but with creativity and a commitment to moderation, you can have your fruit cake and eat it, too.
Enjoy the holidays and drink your pumpkin spice latte, too. Get a healthier pumpkin spice latte recipe in the video below.