How to stop sacrificing your health to the holiday spirit: Doctors weigh in

Striking a better balance between good times and long term health only takes a few tweaks.

Striking a better balance between good times and long term health only takes a few tweaks

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The Canadian holiday season is an upside-down war economy that bends all our efforts and resources to celebration. Eleven months of the year we work and save, grinding incrementally towards our long-term goals. For two weeks in December, we set aside these labours and set a merry torch to our accumulated resources, tearing through unneeded gifts, landfills of packaging, and second desserts in an orgiastic potlatch of consumption. Normally, we turn off the lights when we leave a room to protect our energy bills and the environment. Now we'll string a million electric lanterns around frozen trees to conquer the night with festivity.

And as in wartime, the biggest sacrifice we make to the holidays is not our bankrolls, but our bodies. We abandon our regular regimes of diet and exercise to focus on stoking collective jollity. We hug and shake hands and even hang mistletoe to defy the year's most infectious season. An endless trough of sugary treats and alcohol serves both as holiday accelerant and as a testament to our mutual regard. By sharing after-lunch cookies at work, a nog de trop at drinks, we buoy our energies and signal to one another that we value our good times together more than we value our long-term health. It's a symbolic suicide pact, made stronger by annual repetition.

This intense and long period of celebration can leave us drained and bloated, with a thousand-yard stare fixed on the sweet relief of a dry January and ascetic New Year's resolutions.

There may be no way to make merry without incurring some costs, but need they be so high? Can we moderate the toll of the holidays on our bodies so we can feel a little better and more prepared for the coming year? I asked two medical experts for their best advice on defending our health through the holidays.

Chrisopher Labos is a cardiologist who spends lots of his time explaining key medical and scientific claims to the wider public. He's a contributor to CBC Life who turns a skeptical eye on trendy medical claims. When I asked him for his best advice to stay healthy through the holidays, he gave me five straightforward tips that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. The key is remembering the fundamentals of good health (which you probably already know) and executing them. Here are his top tips for a healthy holiday:

1. Eat less

Simply put we over eat and we all need to limit our intake. Smaller portions and skipping desert may seem self-evident but it is quite simply the main problem that everyone faces.

2. Move more

People blame the holidays, and the weather, and the early sunset when they become more sedentary but moving more is undeniably essential. Inevitably people ask what type of exercise is best and the answer is anything. Anything that isn't sitting on the couch watching TV.

3. Drink less alcohol

Invariably at some point during the holidays someone will say that red wine is good for your heart. It probably isn't. Red wine is very high calories and is far from health food. Reducing your alcohol consumption will help prevent the weight gain most people have during the holidays and help you avoid "holiday heart" and other drinking health hazards.

4. For kids, make their holiday treats something other than candy and sweets

Make their rewards and holiday surprises an activity, a game, something, anything that wouldn't contribute to the problem of childhood obesity. Take your kids outdoors and join in the play. It will be exercise for them and exercise for you.

Melissa Lem is a family doctor and frequent contributor of medical expertise for the CBC. For Dr. Lem, it is not just holidays that endanger our health, it's winter itself. Here are her top tips for getting through the cold season in good health:  

1. Exercise outdoors

Although it may be tempting to move your workouts inside when it gets cold outside, research shows that exposure to full-spectrum light goes a long way towards improving the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which peaks during the winter months. Time spent in nature also reduces stress, improves concentration and promotes kinder behaviour, which would make anyone happier.

2. Get your flu shot

On the milder side the flu can leave you achy, feverish and bedridden for up to a week, or at its worst it can be fatal. Not only that, but a recent study from the UK showed that about 3/4 of infected people carry the virus with minimal or no symptoms, which means that you're unknowingly putting vulnerable people in your community like young children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases at risk.  Although some years' flu-vaccine strains haven't been a very good match, this year's looks like a particularly good one.

3. Hydrate from head to toe

Many of us are acquainted with the recommendation to drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage to ward off dehydration and worse hangovers. Also, because we live in Canada where much of the country gets cold and dry in the winter, we need to pay closer attention to our outsides as well. When your nose dries out it becomes far less effective at clearing away viruses, so consider using an intranasal lubricant or humidifier at home and at work.  Finally, moisturize your skin regularly, because dry skin loses much of its protective barrier, increasing the risk of painful cracking, irritation and eczema flares.

Overeating, overdrinking, and overspending are a big part of the holidays. Follow these tips to make sure you hit 2019 in the best physical condition possible under the circumstances.


Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter. 

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