” Now is the winter of our discontent.” William Shakespeare, Richard The Third, Act 1
Winter will soon be upon us and despite the festive nature of the season, many of us will become miserable as our bodies and minds hunker down and ride out the next 4 to 5 months. Every year we say that this is the winter that we are going to watch our diet, maintain weight, and remain physically and mentally healthy. It usually doesn’t happen quite the way we planned. Why is it so hard to keep our wellness plans in place and, more importantly, what can we do about it?
If you live in a cold climate, as I do, then you know what you are in for. You begin to dread the next five months as soon as the beautiful autumn foliage season ends. You stare at the bare trees for a couple weeks, it’s dark when you leave your home for work and it is dark when you return home 10 hours later. You begin to crave foods that you’re not too crazy about the rest of the year – thick stews, rich deserts, all kinds of sugary treats, and everywhere you go somebody is offering you something that you probably shouldn’t consume, but you do it anyway. You ignore the fact that by mid-December you are wearing your belt couple of notches larger, you stop looking at yourself in the mirror for some bizarre reason, and you find yourself spending a lot more time indoors watching TV. We rationalize all kinds of excuses to make it okay. After all, it is football season and there is an important game on TV this weekend, we have the trifecta of holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah, and, of course, New Year’s. We have to participate in all these festivities in order to stay socially connected to our families and friends. We’re supposed to be enjoying the season, but somewhere along the line we begin to feel miserable and around the first of the year we’re complaining that we can’t wait until Spring arrives.
We’re fighting human evolution. For millions of years humans responded in this manner in order to survive. By the winter time, the wood was gathered and stacked for the upcoming months, physical activity lessened in order to conserve calories and body heat. People slept longer and were physically more lethargic. That 15 pound weight gain certainly made more sense for Paleolithic man, as it could make the difference between life and death. People remained indoors for safety, to conserve heat, and to ride out a long cold season. Primitive man went into hibernation, coming out in the Spring. Of course, his lifestyle would melt away those 15 pounds in a matter of a week or two and he would emerge unscathed.
Proper planning can avoid slipping into the winter doldrums. Some realistic lifestyle goals that will help maintain physical and emotional wellness can help us get through these next few months in a healthy and happy state of mind and body. Here are some suggestions of how to keep your wellness plan in place this winter:
1. Stay physically active. Get some physical activity every day regardless of whether you can get outside are not. Don’t rely on those three visits per week to the commercial gym
you have a membership at. If you aren’t counting on that, you may be disappointed when that blizzard hits and prevents you from getting there for a few days. Yeah, I know, you’re going to say that you have no equipment at home to work out on. You have gravity, chairs, a floor, and, yes, even a snow shovel. You can work out without getting to the gym. Don’t underestimate the importance and benefits of a brief walk on your break at work. Bundle up warmly and get outside whenever possible. The combination of mild exercise and cold, crisp, winter air will do your mind and body wonders. Make sure you do something physical every day, even if it is stretching on your living room floor. It is important for your mental resilience as much as it is for your physical.
2. Be a little more aware and conscious of the foods and beverages that you consume. While you do need to consume things like heartier soups and stews, you don’t need to go overboard. It is very difficult to control your hunger when the weather gets colder, as your body is craving those extra 15 pounds for survival. Exercise and proper hydration can trick your body into being satisfied enough to prevent weight gain. Smaller, frequent, more balanced meals will help you avoid the craving for those dozen doughnuts that a co-worker dropped off at work, or gorging on that pie that your sister-in-law left after her visit. By all means indulge in some of these things, it is part of the holiday season, just don’t go overboard.
3. Pre-game for those holiday gatherings. By this I mean to exercise before that Christmas dinner, holiday office party, or gathering of friends that you are going to. Arrive hungry, but not absolutely famished. Arrive properly hydrated, don’t ignore that veggie plate, go light on the sour cream dip, and save your calories for the foods that you really like. There is an Okinawan saying, “Leave the table when 80% full.” A lofty goal during a holiday feast, but something to strive for.
4. Post game after those holiday gatherings. Get some light exercise after the feeding frenzy is over. Walk, go bowling, play pool – anything that will burn some calories and prevent you from feeling sluggish. Walking is ideal. A slow stroll in the fresh air is one of the best activities as others may join in, making it a social activity.
5. Continue with, or develop, some kind of mindfulness practice. If you meditate, continue to do so. If you “don’t have the time to meditate,” well guess what, you do now, as the slower pace affords time to develop a practice. That silent 5 minutes with a morning cup of coffee before the rest of the family wakes, or that brief, mindful, 5 minute walk on your lunch break qualify as meditative practices. Just build some of these moments in your daily routine. The subtle benefits will decrease your stress levels. Playing a musical instrument, writing, woodworking, arts and crafts, and reading are all activities that can help you weather the season.
6. Resist the temptation to sleep more than you do the rest of the year. Too much sleep or time in bed can make you lazy and less likely to maintain your winter wellness program. If you can, get up at the same time you do the rest of the year. Research indicates that exposure to morning light is one of the best ways to combat the depressive symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Get to bed at your usual time as well. Studies show that an hour of shut eye before midnight has more restorative power that 2 hours after midnight.
A tough Winter doesn’t have to derail your wellness. It can be a great time of year for a lot of reasons. Some careful planing and understanding your mind and body’s evolutionary needs in Winter can comfortably carry you through till April and be ready for Summer acivities. Next year you may even look forward to it.
“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
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