Escaping the festive season with the gift of good health – Sydney Morning Herald

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Catch-ups have an almost frenzied quality to them this year: the chance to finally socialise has collided with the season of (over)indulgence, and we’re eager to see everyone before Christmas.
Though many of us are limping towards the finish line of 2021 and the first decent break in a long time, the pace is picking up and our health may become the casualty to all the blowing off steam and celebrating.
Celebrate without burning out this Christmas: it can be done. Credit:Getty
The question is: how do we escape the festive season, especially this festive season, without the holiday gifts none of us want? Namely, ill health (“leisure sickness”, where we fall ill the moment we take a break, is relatively common), weight gain (the half-a-kilo annual holiday creep), and being more bloody depleted than we already are?
Look, you could argue “moderation” but that would be boring, wouldn’t it? And no, this isn’t the type of article that suggests daily weigh-ins as a method of controlling your weight.
This advice, while useful to some people, is “really unhelpful” to others. The sole focus of health shouldn’t be weight, says Emily Brindal a behavioural research scientist at the CSIRO.
So, is there a better approach? Can we get through this next month or so without wrecking ourselves, or daily weigh-ins of ourselves, and come out the other side feeling more, not less, healthy? Indeed there is, and yes, we can.
One in five Australians have experienced high levels of stress this year, and we’ve managed the ongoing uncertainty of it by consuming more comfort foods. Some people have also drowned out the distress by drinking more.
Research suggests many people also gained weight and did less physical exercise.
It’s a theme that can continue given catch-ups around Christmas often revolve around excess, but there’s no reason we can’t shift the focus to reconnection.
“There are a lot of ways to connect without relying on food and drink, like doing a shared hobby together, walking on one of our beautiful coasts or seeing an exhibition,” Brindal suggests. “We have limited energy, and it is important to direct it toward the things that are the best for our emotional health.”
“When you become more aware of how stress is manifesting in your body you can respond more effectively with practical action.”
Exercise helps to clear stress hormones and stimulate feel-good hormones, so moving catch-ups with people we love can sustain us on a number of levels.
“Keep moving, even if it’s coaxing the family to take a quick walk around the block after dinner,” says accredited practising dietitian and mum-of-three, Kathleen Alleaume.
Changing the nature of our catch-ups, not to mention getting back into nature, also slows the pace back down. Sometimes we just need to stop completely to regain focus.
Three years ago, I opted out of Christmas for the year and instead went to the beach with my partner and daughter, catching up with everyone either side of the craziness. It was great. But, so is fewer commitments: “Is rushing from house to house on Christmas day, angry and stressed going to serve any purpose?” asks Brindal. “Slow down.”
It takes the body about one hour on average to metabolise one standard drink, explains Professor Jacqueline Bowden, the director of the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University. “The liver cannot process alcohol faster than this.”
That means that when we’re drinking faster than our body can process alcohol, it strains our livers. In the short-term, this can mean drowsiness, slurred speech and increased risk of injury – not to mention confusion, vomiting, and black-outs.
“Longer term, cumulative effects associated with drinking can include cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, mental health problems and alcohol dependence,” Bowden adds.
So taking it easy, having nights off and no more than four drinks on any one occasion is good for our energy levels and health and results in better sleep, lower blood pressure, and better role-modelling for kids, Bowden says.
As for better sleep, it may also affect metabolic processes that influence appetite and weight maintenance, says Alleaume, who reminds that one-off blowouts are but a blip on our overall habits radar.
To prevent a one-off from becoming a regular over the festive period, she suggests not taking an “all or nothing” approach. Instead, she says: “You’ll get far better results by focusing on building healthy habits … Set small goals for big outcomes (especially for the long-term).”
Small goals can be as simple as a good morning routine. “You don’t have to eat as soon as you get up, it could be mid-morning, but as long as you do eat something, and it’s wholesome, e.g. fibre-rich with some protein to give you a morning energy boost and help regular blood sugar levels.”
And, if you feel the creep, Brindal says our clothes can keep us accountable: “I have some ‘reality check’ jeans and tops that give me an indication that I may need to jump on the scale.”
The festive season can sometimes feel like it’s happening to us, instead of us leading it.
Clinical psychologist and founder of the Sydney Anxiety Clinic, Dr Jodie Lowinger suggests pausing to reflect on what is driving our actions – are we being driven by fight or flight thoughts, feelings or actions (e.g. the desire to numb stress or exhaustion) or are we being driven by our values – the pull towards health, wellbeing, family, friends, fun. Our actions and behaviours will be different depending on what is driving us.
“Stress can manifest itself physically in many different ways. We can only change what we’re aware of in the first place,” Lowinger says.
“Can you build some awareness of the signs that show up for you? Some common signs include muscle tension, headaches, trouble sleeping, irritability and many other bodily experiences.
“When you become more aware of how stress is manifesting in your body you can respond more effectively with practical action, self-compassion and kindness around what’s in your control.”
What is in our control is our attitude, how we look after ourselves and where we spend our energy. “Reflect on what gives you a sense of meaning and fulfilment this time of year. What do you value? Clarity on your values gives you meaning and an overarching sense of purpose that can help you to make purposeful choices that work for you through the holiday season and beyond.”
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