Don’t Get Left Out in the Cold: Real-Life Strategies to Survive the Winter Months

Winter is coming, and it can pack an unhealthy punch. With the change in weather, activity levels naturally decrease, we reach for comfort foods that help us feel warm and happy, shorter days equal less daylight and let’s not forget the many holidays we will encounter over the next month alone – which open the door to unhealthy foods and drinks. It’s no wonder we’re at risk for weight gain, reduced activity and overall poor health. Don’t fret: There is hope, and we can all survive the wintry spell by incorporating a few realistic strategies to combat weight gain and other unhealthy behaviors that winter can expose:

Strategy 1: Maintain, don’t gain. Make this your winter-month mantra, and work to maintain your weight through the winter months – so when the weather improves, you don’t have any improving to do. You’ll be ahead of the game and won’t have to worry about losing your winter weight. One healthy behavior that can help with weight maintenance is to track your food and activity.

Track your food and activity: Research shows that people who keep track of their food and activity not only lose more weight but keep it off over time. There are many free web-based sites and applications for your phone that can help you track your daily food intake along with your physical activity. Low-cost pedometers can be used for instant feedback on daily activity, and there are even phone applications that count your steps, as well. It’s important to remember to log everything you eat and drink – there are a lot of hidden calories in liquids. Like I always tell my patients, “Healthy or unhealthy, if you eat, be accountable for it and know what you’re putting into your body.”

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Strategy 2: Warm up from the inside out. As the old saying goes, we are what we eat. Despite our desire to be perfect when it comes to healthy eating, we must admit there will be days we choose to eat foods that are not the most helpful. There’s no need to be perfect, but strive to choose healthier foods the majority of the time. Choose foods that work with you and not against you. One healthy behavior during these colds months that could help is incorporating soups into your diet.

Soups: A recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that soup eaters tend to have a lower body weight and lower waist circumference. Soup eating was also associated with a reduced intake of total fat. The type of soup makes a difference. Try to stick with broth-based soups with a high quantity of vegetables, high fiber lentils or legumes and lean proteins. Cream-based soups can be a source of hidden fat and calories. Lastly, when possible, make your soup at home to help reduce sodium content – or look for low-sodium versions of boxed or canned soups.

Strategy 3: Shake off the winter blues. The winter months, especially December, can be a difficult time mentally and emotionally. Stressors like holiday shopping, traveling and increased expenses can take a toll. Also, the reduction in sunlight during the day can lead to less time spent outside, increased TV and computer time, and having low energy. During these months, seasonal affective disorder is most prevalent. This is very different from the common “holiday blues” – SAD is much more severe, and the symptoms can last much longer. It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. Current research suggests physical activity and use of a light box can help combat stress during these months. Strive for 150 minutes a week, about 30 minutes a day, and try not to go more than two days without exercising. Try to plan family or friend outings that involve physical activity. Go bowling, meet up at the gym for a workout together, walk to your local stores instead of driving or try in-home exercise equipment, such as resistance bands, weights or an exercise ball.

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Strategy 4: Don’t let holiday “spirits” bring you down. Starting in November with the celebration of Thanksgiving, the winter months provide many opportunities for celebrations, get-togethers and parties where alcohol is flowing – usually in large quantities. Although alcohol can provide for fun-filled stories the next day around the water cooler, it can be a hidden source of health hazards. Alcohol can contribute many extra calories that go unaccounted, and it can decrease our social inhibitions, leading to eating foods that are higher in calories and fat. Despite the potential for these hazards, current research indicates that the amount of drinks per day is the best indicator for weight gain. So a simple healthy behavior that can help slow down your alcohol intake is to have a glass of water or something non-alcoholic drink in between those glasses of wine. Keep in mind a 5-ounce glass of wine has around 150 calories, and a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor or 12 ounces of light beer packs around 100. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends no more than four drinks per day for men and three per day for women.

Strategy 5: Out S.M.A.R.T. Old Man Winter. Now that you have ideas about how to get through the upcoming cold spell and have potentially even come up with your own ideas of how to stay healthy through the winter, there’s one major area that’s often overlooked. Planning and goal-setting can make a huge difference between success and failure. A major step of adopting new healthy behaviors is actually taking time to plan and set short-term and long-term goals. This key step can lead to long-term adaptation of the behavior we were after in the first place. A simple way to begin creating both short- and long-term goals is to remember to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. That means:

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S – Specific: Identify the who, what, where, when, why and which. Define the goal as clearly as possible, and try to leave out any ambiguous language.

M – Measurable: How will you measure your goal? A form of measurement will give you specific feedback and help keep you accountable over time.

– Attainable: It’s more helpful that the goal is realistic and attainable. While attainable, the goal may still be challenging to achieve.

R – Relevant: Define goals that are most important to you. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll figure out ways to make them come true.

– Time-bound: Setting a target date will help establish a sense of urgency and prevent goals from being overtaken by the day-to-day stressors that are inevitable.

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