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Survey Suggests Holidays Make It Hard to Maintain Healthy Habits

Survey Suggests Holidays Make It Hard to Maintain Healthy Habits

From the flurry of December holiday events until well into the new year, many Americans struggle with maintaining even minimal healthy habits, according to a new survey from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (OSU).

Researchers asked more than 1,000 people over age 18 about their December and January behavior, and found that two-thirds said they overindulge in foods that wouldn’t be considered healthy, and about 45 percent said they “take a break” from any regular exercise. About half of respondents report feeling tired more frequently but also more overwhelmed or stressed due to having fewer opportunities for rest. Around 30 percent of respondents said they drink more alcohol at this time of year, too.

The results aren’t surprising, considering veering away from normal routines and healthy habits are well-known effects of the holidays, according to Barbara Bawer, M.D., family medicine physician at OSU assistant professor of family and community medicine.

“People do tend to lose track of their regular habits around this time and even skimping on one can create a ripple effect,” she told Runner’s World. For example, getting out of sync with a bedtime routine can lead to more daytime sleepiness, which has been shown in previous studies to sabotage healthy eating and increase stress levels. That can create a challenging cycle since both of those may negatively affect sleep as a result.

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Another difficulty is getting back into a better routine, added Bawer. When poor habits related to exercising, eating, drinking, and sleep all add up, it can drain motivation—even if you have robust New Year’s resolutions, she said.

If you’re feeling significantly off track right now, there are three approaches to consider that may be helpful.

The first is to focus on small, consistent changes, according to Bawer. For example, stick to a regular bedtime as much as possible, plan ahead for holiday meals by eating a high-protein meal earlier in the day, and encourage family and friends to do physical activities like going for a walk together or playing a game outdoors. Bawer said these can all minimize the impact of unhealthier behaviors, and also build up motivation for getting back to your everyday schedule.

Another strategy is to just choose one keystone habit to improve. Similar to an actual keystone—the central stone in an arch that supports all the others—picking a behavior such as getting quality sleep or limiting alcohol to just one or two drinks per day can have an impact on the others, according to Brandy-Joe Milliron, Ph.D., associate professor in the nutrition sciences department of Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions.

“Even just making time to go outside every day can have a profound effect, and research has shown that it can affect other choices as well, such as healthy eating, lower stress, and getting more physical activity,” she told Runner’s World. “It’s possible that this is because being intentional about the habit can make you more aware of other habits, too.”

➥The third strategy? Realize this is a short-term derailment and don’t be hard on yourself if you put healthy habits on pause—because the holidays do end. Plus, trying to create too many rules in the midst of parties and gatherings can be frustrating, said dietitian Kara Hoerr, RDN.

“Restriction will almost always create the opposite effect of what you want,” she told Runner’s World. “Once you give yourself unconditional permission to have all foods, it tends to take the power out of those ultra-processed holiday choices.”

No matter what approach you choose, remember this time of year is about enjoyment and often, socializing. So embrace the good times, and don’t worry so much about the healthy habits you’re skimping on. Quality time with others is also a boon for your health. And taking a break from running can offer some real benefits, too.

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Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.