FILE -- A runner at Hudson River Park in Manhattan, Sept. 24, 2018. A few minutes of brief, intense exercise may be as effective, or more effective, for incinerating body fat than walking, jogging, swimming or cycling for lengthier periods.
Photo: Jeenah Moon/The New York Times
Photo: Jeenah Moon/The New York Times

How to get back in the zone after holiday mayhem

Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and every last one of the 12 days of Christmas have come and gone, but you may still feel off-track on post-holiday health goals. And you can't necessarily rely on those New Year's resolutions to get back in the swing of things: According to U.S. News and World Report, 80% of those who make resolutions have failed by the second week of February.  

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"The holidays seem to creep in and take over, regardless of how great our intentions may be!" Atlanta nutrition and eating psychology counselor Margaret Schwenke explained, "Then January rolls in and we find ourselves thrust back into schedules and to-do lists." Both the holiday mayhem and the mad catchup afterwards can make workouts tougher to work into your schedule and an ordinary meal plan tough to stick to. And there may even be a touch of post-holiday blues to contend with. 

For nurses, the post-holiday backlash can be even more wicked. A nurse's holiday season may involve the food indulgences, interrupted sleep and stress of family get-togethers without any break in working hours. Phew! But fear not, there's good news on this front. You can get back on track with health goals, and here are some tips from Schwenke and other health and lifestyle experts to start with: 

Commit to paper. "We all have great ideas, but an idea without execution is no good to us!" explained Schwenke, who helps clients with willpower as part of her practice focus. "Get it out of your head and onto paper. Set aside time to sit down and literally map out your goals. Write down the things that deplete you and make you feel bad and then make a separate list of things that you want to do more of. Once you have this list, you are a lot more likely to commit to your vision."

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Follow a schedule. Create a visible schedule that's based on your most important health goals, Schwenke advised. "If meal prep was on the list of things you want to do more of, when’s it going to happen? Unless there’s an actual time set aside for each of these activities, they'll go back to being just good ideas that you never do. Get clear on when each important goal fits into your schedule. Move some other things around if necessary, to accommodate what's most important to you."

Understand your "why." "This is a big one," Schwenke added. "Try to connect to the reason why this goal is important to you. Find the reason that you absolutely must have this outcome. If you turn this from a 'should' into a 'must,'you are a lot more likely to stay motivated and disciplined to achieve it."

Make bedtime a priority. "I have seen good sleep or bad sleep be the difference that makes someone able to stick to their good intentions and their plan," Schwenke explained. "Try to set a consistent time each night that you want to be in bed, and then hold yourself accountable. It’s much easier to follow through when you’re not foggy and low energy from lack of sleep."

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Find a tribe. “We know those who exercise in a group exercise 10% longer and 21% further and that the key to long-term success past January is goal setting; 88% of runners are still active six months after setting a goal,” Gareth Mills from fitness app Strava told the Daily Mirror

Give yourself an extra hour. As appealing as it is to sleep in on the weekend (or on whatever passes for a weekend on your nurse schedule), getting back to a fitness routine can make you feel even better. You can get extra time to meet fitness goals by rising at the same time every day, fitness expert Marvin Burton told the Daily Mirror. “Find an extra hour by getting up at the same time at the weekend as you would in the week," he advised.

Get your gut back on a routine. "Most people deal with gut issues during the holiday season because they're eating foods that are altering their digestion for extended periods of time... they're also likely not sticking to their typical routines," Nashville-based registered dietitian Erin Judge told Shape. "The biggest complaints I get during the holiday season is bloating and constipation, so much so that many people feel uncomfortable in their clothes and think they've gained weight." Other common complaints after holiday food and alcohol indulgences include acid reflux, indigestion, heartburn and diarrhea, functional medicine practitioner Inna Lukyanovsky told Shape. 

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But according to Shape, your gut really loves "routine and digestion is heavily influenced by how well we establish and stick to patterns. Since you're not exercising as often, sleeping less, eating at different times than usual, traveling more, and not staying as hydrated, your microbiome suffers. What's more, you're eating less fiber (which our good gut bacteria feeds on; here's exactly how much fiber you need) and more high-lactose dairy, cruciferous vegetables, wheat, alcohol, and sugar—all serious enemies of your microbiome."

Along with establishing a big-picture plan for better eating after the holidays, you can get a quick boost starting with your next lunchtime choice. "Your beneficial gut bacteria feed on fiber, so when you decrease it, they don't flourish, which can then add to the digestive issues you may be experiencing from other food choices," Judge added. She recommended "a simple salad with romaine hearts, chopped carrots and cucumber, rotisserie chicken, vinaigrette dressing, and pumpkin seeds, or a buddha bowl with brown rice, chickpeas, sauteed bell peppers and mushrooms, steamed kale, and a tahini drizzle—adding whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds to whatever meals you can will help fuel that good bacteria in your gut. "

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Walk it off. "You don't have to exercise for 60 minutes a day, but if you can incorporate intentional movement during your day, you'll support healthy digestion," Judge explained.

Beat back the holiday blues. If you're also struggling with your emotions weeks after the holidays have ended, recognize that you may be feeling loss more than standard depression, according to psychologist Margaret Wehrenberg in Psychology Today.

"Knowing what the mood is about makes it much easier to escape," she said. "Even if your holidays were a more stressful excitement than fun, you most likely had a lot of activity—the preparations, the socializing, the travel, the family visits: four or five weeks with lots to do. Then—suddenly—it's over. It's done. Overnight, you lose the sense of excitement, you lose the activities filling your time, you lose the involvement with other people." 

And the cessation of plans can "open the memory network of other losses: other times when you felt alone or bereft, sad without company, or deflated over something you hoped for that didn't happen," Wehrenberg added.

But you can work through the feelings. "One of the first steps in beating the post-holiday blues is realizing that this mood of loss is really an adjustment to less stimulation," she added. To further dispel the feelings of being alone or sad after the holidays, Wehrenberg recommended talking to someone verbally, "not by texting. Think about someone that you enjoy being around, talking to, or care about, and call that person on the phone. Rather than complaining about your mood, ask them about the best part of their holiday or the most fun moment that they had. If you feel that someone won't bother to answer their phone, you could send a text message saying, 'Please pick up. I want to chat with you for a few minutes.'"

She also recommended getting out of the house with its post-holiday emptiness, and re-reading any greeting cards or holiday newsletters you received. "Doing so will help you get into somebody else's memory bank for a while, instead of ruminating in your depression," she explained. And if you're fresh out of holiday cards, "Look at old letters or e-mails from friends and family from years past! It could be fun to reread about someone's vacation to Peru or about the birth of a niece or nephew back-in-the-day."

And finally, make it a point to look forward to something, anything you can be excited about. "Contemplate one thing you would love to happen this year," Wehrenberg advised. "Not a giant life goal—this could be daunting, with your exhausted brain already feeling blue. But think about one thing you would like to happen in 2020 and then make a plan to bring it into being."

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