The holiday season, a time of large family, friend, and office gatherings, is absolutely ripe with opportunities to get sick, and then when you factor in the added temptation to eat and drink in a bacchanalian fashion, it’s a recipe for poor health. Luckily, there are a few easy ways you can consciously limit your revels and stay healthy while still enjoying all the festivities.
Wash Your Hands
Keeping your hands clean is one of the easiest and most important ways to avoid — and prevent the spread of — illness. Handwashing alone can prevent one in three diarrheal illnesses and one in five respiratory infections, according to the CDC. The organization recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or the equivalent time it takes to hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice.
Prepare Your Food Safely
If you’re hosting, take extra care to wash hands and surfaces frequently, avoid cross-contamination, refrigerate foods promptly, and double-check that you have cooked foods to their proper temperatures. According to the CDC, 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year, and the complaints tend to be highest during the holiday season. As a guest you obviously will have less control over your food’s preparation, but if something seems a bit off just play it safe and forego.
This isn’t a political statement but rather a scientific one. Due to increased travel and the tendency for large groups to gather indoors, the flu and other troublesome viruses spread like wildfire this time of year. Getting the flu vaccine not only reduces your chances of getting ill, but it can reduce the severity of the flu if you still get sick. The more people who get vaccinated, the safer the rest of the population is, thanks to the herd immunity effect that we all heard so much about during the pandemic.
Be Mindful of Your Diet
The holidays are loaded with temptation: gifts of baked goods, extravagant family meals, and fancy seasonal cocktails. You should of course indulge a bit — that’s what the holidays are all about — but try to keep it within reason. One way to do this is to practice mindfulness at mealtime. Focus on what you’re eating and relish each bite, and take a small break before going back for seconds (to allow your brain to recognize the signal that the stomach is full.) It’s also helpful to ditch the “now or never” nature of the holidays. In an article for Forbes, nutrition expert Samantha Cassetty says that one way to do this is to reframe how you regard holiday meals. “Make a deal with yourself that if you want stuffing, ham, or pecan pie another time, you can have it. When you de-mystify holiday food and recognize you can eat it any time, you’re in better control of your food choices.”
Additionally, replacing certain traditional side dishes with a few healthier ones can go a long way. Try sautéed green beans instead of green bean casserole, for instance. And if you have a feeling there won’t be many leafy greens at the potluck, don’t shy away from bringing a salad to share.
Finally: DRINK WATER. Staying hydrated, especially as you get older, is harder to do and yet essential for almost all bodily processes to go smoothly. Drinking a few glasses of water with your meal will aid with digestion, and will help prevent the mild dehydration that happens when alcohol is consumed.
Make Time for Self-Care
The holidays are a stressful time of year, and can take a toll on your mental and emotional health. Make sure to take time each day to practice some self-care in whatever form you prefer, whether it’s quiet time with a book or movie, taking a walk, or enjoying some quality time with close friends. Taking little time-outs will help keep your stress over the holidays at a manageable level, which is key for maintaining good spirits.
It’s so easy to neglect physical activity during the holiday season; We’re busy, it’s cold outside, family is visiting, and TV offers a ton of fun holiday movies to watch. But just like it’s important to set aside time to relax, getting regular exercise is crucial to maintaining our physical and mental health. If you already have a pretty good routine, try to plan your errands around it, instead of vice versa. To start incorporating more movement into your daily life, plan on doing just a little bit at a time. Ten minutes of exercise twice a day is a lot easier to cram into busy holiday schedules than suddenly finding time to go to the gym for an hour.
Another great idea is to incorporate physical activity into your repertoire of holiday traditions. You could go for a family bike ride at midday when everyone is dawdling around anyhow, or take an evening walk to admire the holiday lights.
Get Some Sleep
When you’re trying to fit everything into these shorter days, it can be hard to stay on a normal sleep schedule. Being tired can lead to increased stress, low energy, and making unhealthy eating and drinking decisions. Avoid overbooking yourself this holiday season, fight for comfortable accommodations if you’re staying in a crowded house, and maybe look into getting a sleep mask and ear plugs if necessary.