The lights, the wreaths, the carols, the gifts, the fetes—there’s much to love about the holidays, isn’t there?
But thisseason—with its cross-country flights, myriad parties, decadent food and chilly weather—can rapidly go from joyful to joyless, in that it puts us in a precarious place in terms of winter health hazards.
Here are the top five threats to our well-being during the holidays—and how to prevent them from happening:
1. The hazard: weight gain
A slice of pumpkin pie here, a sugar cookie there, peppermint candy and chocolate kisses seemingly everywhere—is it any wonder that the average American packs on at least a pound during the holidays?
Your safety net: plan Ahead
You might be tempted to throw in the towel and vow to just start dieting come January. But if ever there’s some validity to “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”—no pun intended—it’s in regards to your body.
The key is to neither overindulge nor over-restrict yourself; rather, by striking a balance between healthy food choices and a consistent (perhaps slightly elevated) exercise routine, you’ll be able to savor holiday treats without a food hangover.
Attending a feast? Eat smartly throughout the day—including a snack with protein no less than two hours prior to the event, so that you don’t arrive ravenous (and head straight for the canapes). Saturday packed with engagements centered around the dining table? Spend the evening prior sweating it out in a vinyasa class or on the bicycle. Anticipating when you’ll be indulging in rich fare allows you to make choices that will counter the extra calories.
2. The hazard: stress
Children might have a ball from Halloween to New Year’s, but adults have a propensity for internalizing the pressure of creating—and having—the perfect holiday season.
“Stress around the holidays can be worse than other times because people tend to overcommit themselves,” Dr. Jennifer Caudle—a family physician in Stratford, New Jersey—says. And if you’re of the fairer sex, chances are you feel even more compelled to cope with the anxieties that are seemingly inherent to the holidays. “A study from the American Psychological Association found that 44 percent of women reported increased stress around the holidays compared to 31 percent of men,” Health reports.
Your safety net: be realistic
It’s easy to get caught up in the exhilaration of it all, from booking three parties in a single evening to deciding to make your own handmade cards.
But ask yourself this: Will those sleepless nights thwart your ability to enjoy yourself? If the answer is yes—as it ought to be; good sleep hygiene is essential now and always—cut yourself some slack by being realistic. Commit to the one party that sounds most appealing. Forgo hand-wrapped gifts by letting the retailer tape, wrap and bow for you. Do your holiday shopping online to avoid the hassle of long lines and packed parking lots, and don’t feel that your partner and other family members are absolved of helping you with the dishes and decorating.
As for those handmade cards? Unless you honestly have time for it, don’t feel beholden to your holiday-crazed decisions; after all, Papyrus exists for a reason.
3. The hazard: catching a bug
Love is in the air—and so are the germs that come with it. Flu, colds and more are transmitted through saliva (hello, kissing under the mistletoe), as well as from hugging, shaking hands, even sharing a row on the plane. And who wants to spend Christmas morning holding a box of tissue? (Unless it’s tissue paper, that is.)
Your safety net: defend yourself
Now is not the time to huddle up in your house in isolation. Instead, be wise about your interactions. Researchers at the University of Toronto suggest air kisses to avoid potential germs, while also having a bottle of hand sanitizer handy (and, it should go without saying, washing your hands before digging into those appetizers).
Further, aim to keep your immune system hearty and healthy throughout the holiday season. Vitamin C naturally supports immunity, while a daily multivitamin can work as an insurance policy for your immune system by supplying you with nutrients. Harvard Health also suggests drinking in moderation—even at your neighbor’s much-anticipated cocktail party—getting sufficient sleep and exercising regularly.
4. The hazard: all-day shopping (and the pain that arrives with it)
“Shop till you drop” must have been invented during the holidays, when both procrastinators and plan-aheaders hit the mall until they’re ready to hit the floor. Ryan Stanton—an ER doctor in Louisville, Kentucky—says that the strain from shopping usually arrives in how we carry our treasures. “People to tend to carry their keys in one hand, and seven bags in the other,” he said to U.S. News & World Report. “That imbalance—that strain on one side of the back—causes injuries.”
Your safety net: strive for balance
Not only should you keep in mind Stanton’s words—and aim to keep equal weight in both hands—but also avoid carrying your bags in the crook of your arm, which can put strain on your elbow. In addition, maintain good posture, even when you’re positively exhausted after braving Macy’s; it’ll aid in keeping your spine in alignment.
And don’t overlook the power and necessity of yoga and stretching: The former can strengthen your core and back muscles (thereby lessening stiffness), while the latter may help you reduce tension.
5. The hazard: food poisoning
If ever there’s a time of year in which we eat outside of our standard fare—and outside of our own home—it’s the holidays (deep-fried turkey at your distant cousin’s, anyone?) What’s more, many of the dishes you may eat at potlucks and other gatherings will have been transported in the car, on the train, you name it.
The food safety risk here is not insignificant: “Carrying food from one location to another and sharing dishes with a crowd means more opportunity for bacteria to grow and cause food poisoning,” FoodSafety.gov reports, while Stanton says each holiday season sees an uptick in post-meal emergency room visitors.
Your safety net: exercise caution
Raw meat, seafood and poultry pose a risk for contamination—when shopping for food, make sure they’re not touching other items in your cart (and, as FoodSafety.gov suggests, ask your cashier to place them in a separate bag). Designating different cutting boards for different foods—meaning, don’t slice your bread on the same board that just saw that roast—may reduce your risk as well, while using a meat thermometer can help you ensure your goods are safe and ready to consume.
Eating elsewhere? It may be a no-brainer but make sure your utensils are clean (and that you’re not sharing a spoon with your niece), and shy away from buffets that have been sitting out for hours. (As the director of food-borne disease control at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Kevin Hargin says, “The spread is out on the table all evening getting nice and warm—the bugs are having a great time in the salad dressings, the quiches and so on.”)
As for those leftovers you’ve lugged home: Eat them no later than two days after they were cooked and be certain they’re stored in a sealed container. And beware of some of the biggest culprits behind food poisoning: raw eggs, soft cheese such as Camembert and Brie and pate. (That overlooked apple in the back suddenly looks delicious, doesn’t it?)