With Christmas over, now comes the real test -- to emerge from the holiday season no heavier than going in.
Stress -- heightened for many who face last-minute shopping, Big Meal preparation, invasions by extended family and calendars drooping under the weight of holiday performances, celebrations and, not least, parties -- derails many best efforts at weight maintenance. Stress is the No. 1 reason people revert to old bad habits, according to psychologist James O. Prochaska, director of the Cancer Prevention Program in Kingstown, R.I.
"We know from national studies that Americans tend to cope with stress by eating more junk food, drinking more alcohol and smoking more. We are a nation that tends to cope with (stress by resorting to) oral behavior."
It doesn't have to be that way. Experts on fitness, nutrition and stress offer some useful tactics.
-- Plan three healthy strategies to cope with the most tempting eating situations.
That's three -- no more, no less. "One and two plans aren't enough, four is too many" to avoid major lapses in eating and exercise while under stress, Prochaska says. For example, when holiday buffets loom, Plan 1 could be to limit alcohol to one drink, or to two wine spritzers cut with sparkling water. Plan 2 would be to have a snack of healthy stuff -- fruit, veggies, low-fat yogurt -- before the party so you're not ravenous when faced with a glistening spiral ham and a serving fork. Plan 3 may be to locate a buddy to divert you from hovering over the chocolate tray like a helicopter or to work off a few hundred extra calories earlier in the day with a long exercise session. The idea is to have three plans for high-danger situations. This will permit you to approach them with less stress.
-- Use exercise to relieve stress.
You've heard it before. But the fact remains that "physical activity is still the best stress-coping mechanism going," says psychologist John Foreyt, director of the Nutrition Research Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Walk, stretch, move as much as possible this week. Even brief amounts of activity -- as short as 10 minutes -- have been shown to promote relaxation, boost mood and help control eating. If you can intercept a bingeing impulse with a quick stroll, the desire to eat may not outlast the walk.
-- Meditate or relax.
No need to join the ashram. Several times a day, or when stress looms, sit quietly for about 10 minutes and try to calm your thoughts. Relax your hands, arms, legs, neck, shoulders. Find a dark, quiet room, if you can, to do so. The idea is to clear your mind and relieve the stress. Meditation or relaxation can fill in when exercise isn't an option, Foreyt says.
-- Expect less to eat less.
The gap between expectations and reality often fuels overeating, says Sue Popkess-Vawter, developer of an Overeating Tension Scale at the University of Kansas School of Nursing in Kansas City. The trick, she says, is to scale back expectations from Norman Rockwell/Hallmark/Eternity by Calvin Klein peaks so that when you fail to meet them you don't start scouring the cheese dip bowl with your index finger.
-- Don't turn a minor lapse into a major relapse.
So you overindulged. Hey, it's the holidays. You enjoyed yourself. The eggnog was great, and so were the latkes. Give yourself a break -- but don't use it as an excuse to quit, proclaim failure or indulge a fit of self-loathing. Just start looking forward again and resume your plan to eat better and be healthier.
"We're all human," says Foreyt of such inevitable and sometimes wonderful lapses. "It happens to all of us. Just resolve to get back on track again."
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