Michele Reynolds joined Bay Club Fitness last December, hoping to avoid the extra pounds that often result from all of the holiday parties and family gatherings held this time of year.
Her strategy worked and propelled the North Yarmouth resident through a healthier year. In that time, she dropped 13 pounds by improving her diet, cutting out extra carbs and working out three days a week at the One City Center fitness club during lunch breaks from her job at Portland City Hall.
“I didn’t want to gain weight during the holidays and I stuck with it,” Reynolds said during a recent workout. “I always feel better afterward.”
Though Reynolds’ effort may seem admirable but unattainable to some, fitness, food and mental health experts say her approach to staying healthy and upbeat during the holiday season is a good model to follow.
They suggest a variety of simple ways to stave off the pounds and manage the stress that can come between Christmas and New Year’s. It can be as easy as choosing a wine spritzer over whisky-laced eggnog or taking a walk after a big meal rather than napping in front of the TV.
“Get outside and get moving,” said Benjamin Towne, a lecturer in exercise, health and sports sciences at the University of Southern Maine. “It helps with digestion, it burns calories and, if nothing else, you get away from the in-laws for a little while.”
But including in-laws in outdoor activities could help to improve strained relationships.
“You might find you like them a lot more than you thought,” Towne said.
Towne, who’s also the athletic trainer for the U.S. bobsled and skeleton team, recommends giving gifts that encourage friends and family members to get active, especially if the weather cooperates and delivers snow or allows lakes to freeze.
Sleds, snowshoes, skates and cross-country skis are good gift choices that can provide hours of relatively inexpensive outdoor fun long after the holidays, Towne said. Ice-and-snow cleats such as Yaktrax slip over boots and running shoes, allowing walkers and runners to stay active through the winter months.
But staying active during the holidays doesn’t have to cost anything or require excursions into the cold outdoors, Towne said. He suggests heading down to the basement or out to the garage for 15 minutes of activity, such as 30 seconds each of jumping jacks, push-ups, squats and other exercises.
“You move a little, start to sweat and feel good about yourself,” he said.
EAT HEALTHY FOODS
Keeping off extra pounds during the holidays can be difficult, with gooey appetizers and sweet treats covering buffet tables at work parties, family gatherings and other events. Still, healthy food doesn’t have to be tasteless or otherwise unappealing.
Deb Brooks, a professor of dietetic technology at Southern Maine Community College, tells her students to keep in mind that people eat with their eyes.
“Use color as if you’re creating a painting on your table,” Brooks said. “Because with color comes good nutrition.”
Amid the carb-rich casseroles, salty spiral ham and greasy snack chips, Brooks recommends offering a colorful platter of vegetable sticks, including green, red and yellow peppers, carrots, celery, broccoli and cauliflower. To keep the veggies healthy, make a hummus dip with chickpeas, garlic and lemon juice or a creamy dip with protein-rich, nonfat Greek yogurt.
“It gives you lots of rich flavor and nutrition without the fat,” Brooks said.
Brooks warns against cutting out everything considered unhealthy. Instead, she suggests keeping portions small and striking a balance between foods that are high in fat, salt, sugar and carbohydrates and fruits, vegetables and grains that are served as close to their natural state as possible.
“Go ahead and have some cheesy artichoke dip,” she said. “Then try something more healthy, like salsa.”
She notes that salsa made at home or purchased in the produce section often has a lot less salt and sugar than manufactured brands.
“It’s just chopped up stuff,” she said, “and it’s full of good things like tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro.”
Choose whole-grain crackers and tortilla chips, and pick low-fat, low-salt versions that hardly register a flavor difference once they’re dipped in salsa or hummus. Cocktail shrimp can be a healthy appetizer option as well.
Low-fat cheeses have improved greatly in recent years, Brooks said, so much so that partygoers likely won’t notice a difference. Add a bunch of seedless grapes and other small fruits to a cheese platter and watch them disappear.
“It’s finger food that’s as easy to grab as potato chips,” Brooks said.
When it comes to beverages, a spritzer made with seltzer and red wine or pomegranate juice is a sparkling but healthier alternative to soda, beer and other alcoholic options.
For holiday dinners, make sure there are plenty of vegetables on the table, including squash, sweet potatoes, green beans, broccoli, peas and salad.
Bake or broil meats rather than fry and choose cuts with “round” or “loin” in the name because they tend to have a lower fat content, Brooks said.
Make stuffing more healthy by reducing the bread crumbs, increasing the chopped celery and onions, and eliminating butter in favor of more broth. Cranberries, mushrooms and nuts, in small quantities, boost flavor and nutrients. If you like sausage in your stuffing, reduce the amount or use low-fat turkey sausage.
“The taste will still be there,” Brooks said.
For dessert, options include a festive fruit compote made with fresh or frozen berries, pumpkin custard baked in individual ramekins or pears baked in an elegant spiced red wine sauce.
“You can make things special without sacrificing anything,” Brooks said.
FIND DEEPER MEANING
Preserving one’s mental health during the holidays requires extra effort for many people, despite the colorful lights and merry carols.
Sylvie Demers, a licensed clinical social worker and regional director at Counseling Services Inc., offers some insight into the emotional challenges of the season and how to deal with them.
“Holidays and other big events are, by definition, stressful,” Demers said. “Sometimes it’s good stress. Sometimes it’s bad stress. The best advice I can give is plan, plan, plan.”
When it comes to buying gifts, attending parties or having family members over for dinner, Demers recommends making a budget, establishing a schedule of events and continuing to take care of yourself amid the hustle and bustle.
“Stick to your regular routine as much as possible and keep up with your physical care,” Demers said, such as eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and some exercise.
If family gatherings pose a challenge, Demers suggests finding ways to limit exposure to relatives who trigger anxiety or arguments. People in recovery from addiction may want to avoid altogether family members who likely will be engaging in similar behaviors.
“Know what you’re up against,” Demers said. “It’s not the first time your mom is going to mention your weight. Consider how you might regulate yourself emotionally.”
Advises Demers: “Know what’s going to trigger you and plan a response that isn’t going to escalate the situation, whether it’s to walk away, respond in a neutral way or not react at all.”
For people who find the holidays materialistic and commercialized, Demers encourages them to focus on the deeper meaning of the season, whether they find it in family, faith and community.
“The holidays can be a very isolating time, especially for people who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, or a job, or a relationship,” Demers said. “People have very unrealistic expectations around the holidays and you can experience great disappointment. Don’t judge yourself.”
For people who are struggling with depression or other emotional challenges during the holidays, Demers urges them to seek counseling or, in an emergency, call the crisis hotline at 888-568-1112.
For those who simply want to feel more connected at this time of year, Demers recommends volunteering at a soup kitchen, attending a religious service or inviting a neighbor to dinner who might otherwise spend the holidays alone.
“Reach out to others,” she said. “It’s a great way to feel good about the season.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: