How to stay healthy over Christmas 2017

It’s that time of year again when the opportunity for fun, food, drinks and late nights ratchets up a few notches. If we go over the top – eat and drink to abandon, forget any semblance of an exercise regime and pay no attention to sleep – then all the excess will play havoc with virtually every aspect of our physical and mental well-being. That includes what we look and feel like each day.

But there is another way!

Start by being realistic 

The average person will gain about two to three kilograms over the Christmas period and the media tells us there is no escaping the excesses. But is there really no way to avoid undoing the last 11 months of good work?

Let’s start by being realistic. We are probably not going to make any huge improvements to our fitness over the festive period. Whether we are after fat loss and/or muscle gain, this is unlikely to be the time of year to make significant steps. But we can certainly aim to keep the status quo by adopting a few sensible principles.

Plan your diary

Make a list of all your social events from early December over to the New Year. This will show how different this period will be from the normal routine. 

Next, take the following steps. Pinpoint:

  • Days or events where you will be eating or drinking out, highlighting those with large amounts of (free) food and drink that will easily lead to excess consumption. Additionally, mark the days before and after as priority time for balancing out the impact of these events.
  • Days you plan to exercise and/or get to the gym, and what you plan to do. Additionally, mark days the gym is closed. Between Christmas and New Year, schedule some time to get some physical activity – even if it is just a daily walk (particularly beneficial after large meals…)

Workout tips

If your gym routine consists of classes, check out the timetable and go for a variety of classes that will give you the biggest bang for your buck:

  • There are a great selection of 30-min express classes on timetable - Cycle, Circuit, HIIT, ViPR and Kettlebells
  • Cycle classes give a good workout, using your biggest muscle group and burning plenty of energy, but don't forget to balance that out with some upper body work too.
  • A Sculpt class or a Circuit will hit your whole body in one session. The circuit will focus more on your cardiovascular fitness; the Sculpt class will focus more on your muscular endurance. A TRX class will hit all your muscle groups too; and a HIIT class will test your cardiovascular fitness
  • If your preference is resistance training, again stick with what will give you the biggest bang for your buck. That means that focusing on your biggest muscle groups with compound lifts. If you need to ditch a day, lose the 'arms day'. Some benching, press-ups, military press, pull-ups, chin-ups and bent over rows will help maintain those biceps and triceps

Avoid the trap of thinking lots of ab classes and core will be the best solution to keeping that excess in check around the waist-line – it isn't!

Alcohol and fitness

Most of us will have had occasions where we have gone to the gym after a big night out, or with a hangover, in the belief that it will clear our system or make us feel better. It might take our mind off feeling below par for an hour or so, but the impact on the body is negative. We are far better to skip the routine if something intensive was planned, or take the intensity down until your body has recovered from the excess.

Why is this?

  • Alcohol interferes with our normal metabolism and the dehydration increases the risks of muscle cramps, strains  – as well as our body's ability to produce Adenosine Triphosphate. This results in a loss of energy and endurance rendering us far less capable of achieving our normal training routine safely and with good form.
  • Alcohol also impacts the storage of nutrients, particularly vitamins and minerals – with a negative impact on the antioxidant vitamins A and C, as well as vitamin B. Alcohol will also negatively impact our calcium, magnesium and zinc levels.
  • Remember too that between Christmas and New Year you are likely to use less energy than usual. No commute to and from work and fewer gym sessions leads to more time at home, with friends and family or in front of the television – so your body has a reduced energy need.

Party prep

Plan to go out and enjoy yourself. Deprivation generates resentment. Instead accept that the evening will be one of moderation, regardless of what colleagues or friends get up to.

  • About two hours before, consume a largish snack high in protein, with some slow release carbohydrate and fats. Also drink a few glasses of water. This way you won't arrive at the event with hunger pangs that tempt you to indulge in as much as you can as soon as you can.
  • Find a friend or colleague who also plans to have an evening of moderation, agree a plan, and support each other through the evening.
  • If the event clashes with a time where you would normally be in the gym, make an alternative plan for fitting in the gym session.

At the party

  • At a buffet, fill half your plate with salad and add lean protein sources such as chicken, fish or beef.  Even better, and being mindful of sustainability, go for the plant protein sources such as beans, chickpeas, mixed bean salad, lentils and quinoa. Avoid bread, sausage rolls, quiches and handfuls of nuts and dried fruits
  • For drinks, have a glass of water between every alcoholic drink and set a sensible limit before you go out which you will be able to adhere to. Stick to white wine and champagne as these tend to be the lowest in calories
  • Avoid mulled wine and creamy liquors which contain the highest number of calories; a cup of eggnog alone will set you back over 300 calories.

Christmas day and eating out

The average person consumes the equivalent of two to three days' worth of calories on Christmas Day, partly by snacking excessively before and after the big meal. It is the consumption of chocolate, nuts, shortbread, mince pies and crisps that does the damage to our physiques, rather than the Christmas lunch itself.

  • Start the day with a filling breakfast. Use eggs and lean cooked-meat, as well as wholemeal toast. Drink plenty of water – the brain often mistakes dehydration for hunger, encouraging further snacking.
  • The traditional turkey and Brussels sprouts are quite healthy, so fill the plate with these. Minimise the traditional extras of pigs-in-blanket (approximately 150 calories each), Yorkshire pudding (100 calories), stuffing and roast potatoes (each about 200 calories).
  • When eating out, avoid breads and pastries for starters and choose a soup, salad, cold meat or vegetarian option. For main meals, avoid creamy sauces: anything grilled, boiled or steamed is usually a good choice, and fill up with green vegetables rather than pasta and rice. Mixed bean curry, lentil based dishes and salads are good choices (though avoid potato salad and a lot of dressing).
  • Be wary of pudding – cheesecake, fruitcake and Christmas pudding will be approximately 300 calories per slice, and there is only a little less in a mince pie. A pudding with custard and brandy butter will contain at least 25% of your daily energy needs.
  • More is being written around the likely link between cancers and cured, processed and cooked meats  - Cancer Research UK and Science Daily have written indepth articles on the subject - so avoid or minimise these. If you are looking to buy these meats be aware that cheap meat may well be smoked with additional flavourings, chemicals and additives so where possible make sure you are buying good quality.

And finally… 

If we get our eating regime right about 80% or so of the time, we can enjoy a combination of food, fitness, festivity and fun… We should plan for a little indulgence – just in moderation. Moderation is far healthier than all or nothing. If we deprive ourselves whilst everyone else is enjoying themselves, we'll end up feeling resentful.

This, combined with a wider consideration of how the food choices we make impact the planet - from the resources used in producing and packaging products, through to the transport and waste it creates is something to think about. I have over the last few years moved to a more plant based diet which the Huffington Post writes about in regards to its environmental credentials and ABC News writes about in terms of the health benefits. 

Follow these steps and they will put you in a place to have a good festive break and allow you to keep your fitness status quo ready to start back again in 2018.

About the Author

Nick Owen is a qualified nutritional adviser and holds a Diploma in Non-Medical Nutritional Advice. Nick uses nutrition to support a wide variety of client goals. These include weight management, fat loss and muscle building, general health and well-being, improved energy levels, concentration and complexion. Nick’s approach is practical and realistic, starting with an analysis of current eating patterns and lifestyle, and then working over a series of consultations to support achievement of the desired goals.

ymca | 4 November 2017