by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
It’s the holidays, and even the most steel-willed, health-crazed gym rat is bracing for weeks of parties, family dinners, and endless tempting multimedia cues to eat, eat, eat! Is it mission impossible to navigate the food-filled maze without packing on pounds? Is the only solution to hunker down inside a mountaintop ashram chomping on arugula? No! You can indeed have a joyous and terrific holiday. Just remember the five secrets to ENJOY.
E—Enough sleep. Remember the last time you didn’t get your seven to eight hours of sleep and you got up and started eating everything that wasn’t tacked down? Science now shows that when you’re sleep deprived, your appetite and hunger hormones stop functioning appropriately. The result is a runaway appetite that leaves you with no sense of satisfaction and sets you on a full-on daylong grazing fest. Did you know that even fat cells need their sleep? New studies show that if these little guys don’t get at least six to seven hours of sleep, insulin regulation gets off-kilter, leading to higher than normal blood glucose levels and a slippery slope toward diabetes.
The Secret Solution: Make plans to get enough sleep. Here’s one of my favorite tips to ensure you get your ZZZs. I call it the reverse alarm clock trick. Grab your smartphone and schedule your nightly sleep by making an appointment reminder to sound off around 1 to 1.5 hours prior to going to bed. Crank up the volume on your reminder alarm and be creative—use a fire engine noise, not some calming Zen music—to signal that bedtime is coming. This way you won’t end up suddenly looking up at the clock and realizing it’s already 1 a.m.
N—Nonnegotiable physical activity. Don’t break out in “I hate exercise” hives. I didn’t use the “e” word. I said “physical activity,” which includes all of your activities of daily living. Moving more throughout the day keeps your metabolism humming, cooks calories, maintains physical fitness, and makes you feel more energetic, happier, and centered. What’s not to love? No Olympic boot camps needed. Researchers who have studied communities of centenarians from around the world have found that it’s regular moderate physical activity, not extreme sports, that’s most associated with high-quality longevity. Sign me up!
The Secret Solution: As a start, get up and assume the vertical more often throughout the day. Find every excuse you can to stand up and stretch, walk, and take the stairs. Like pennies in a piggy bank, it all adds up by the end of the day. Slap on a pedometer and see what your baseline number of steps is per day. Then aim to add 500 to 1,000 steps per day that week. The next phase is to schedule a walk into your daily calendar. Start with 10 minutes, then 15, and keep it going to 30 or more. Add an activity bonus by gradually incorporating some intensity here and there by simply stepping it up—hit that hill or pick up the pace on the straightaway. The bottom line is you need to move.
J—Just stay mindful. The easiest way to gain weight is to go mindless. Ever catch yourself in a food trance, doing a glazed-eyed zombie walk to the fridge, foraging, and eventually awakening on your couch surrounded by heaps of empty wrappers? There’s no mystery as to why you can’t zip up those jeans. And there’s no need to constantly fall prey to the 24/7 cues to eat, which is a real problem if you have an issue with food addiction.
The Secret Solution: Go mindful. You need to pay attention, live in the present, be aware of your environment, and stay vigilant. This means the smarty-pants part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), needs to be powered up and fully engaged. Regular physical activity stimulates the growth of new brain cells and pathways to help you stay focused. Gather around you a support system (people, pets, Post-Its) to encourage you to stay the course.
O—Om. Picture yourself taking a long, challenging hike, dodging tree limbs and crawling over boulders in your path. After a while, your body needs a break, so you rest for a while before continuing your journey. Your muscles needed a breather, without which you’d burn out. Well, the same holds true for your mental muscle. Most of us forget that our minds are often in overdrive as we multitask our way through the day. And we never take the mental break we desperately need to regroup. And, like the hiker, it doesn’t take much.
The Secret Solution: You need some quiet time to help rejuvenate your prefrontal cortex and switch off the deafening rants from your brain’s stress center. How about an om or two? Neuroscience shows that the regular practice of meditation or mindfulness results in activation of your PFC and a dampening of the stress response. As a start, how about trying to start each day with 5 to 10 minutes of hiding away somewhere and sitting still, allowing thoughts to come and go, and just “being.” During the day, steal away for 5 to 10 minutes for a walking meditation somewhere pleasant. Close your office door and feign a deadline, then sit back and close your eyes. These mini mental breaks keep you on track, whether standing in a long department store line or preparing for a festive family dinner.
Y—Yummy it up…the right way. No one wants to feel deprived. Nutrition scientists have found that when “dieters” are stuck with the usual calorie-restricted lean protein and veggie fare and no other options, most will experience increased stress hormone levels and then the consequent raging appetite, and you know what follows. Come on, let’s get real—it’s the holiday season, and no one wants to feel left out.
The Secret Solution: Everyone deserves treats as part of a balanced nutrition plan. The question is what treat? My rule is to absolutely avoid any food that you know will trigger overeating. I call these the “bingeables.” You know yours. For some people it’s anything chocolate, while others are set off by creamy, fattier textures. And others go for salty-crunchy. No one needs another binge. Instead, get creative and find satisfying one-serving wonders (meaning you won’t crave a second or third serving) that can substitute for a bingeable you may crave. Log on to Prevention’s Healthy Recipe Finder today and create your own yummy holiday treat.
Armed with these ENJOY secrets, you can forge through the weeks ahead knowing you’re achieving a royal win-win. First, you’ll embrace and enjoy this season. Second, you’re laying down the foundation for healthy, joyous living throughout the year. Times a’wasting. Start ENJOY’ing today.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.