Guard your health during busy, pressure-filled December

By American Heart Association News

Couple with young child
(lisegagne, Getty Images)

December is a time for hosting relatives, going to holiday parties and possibly overindulging in food and drink. Mix in year-end work deadlines and other pressures, and it can be a recipe for stress and health problems.

But it doesn't have to be.

Making healthy choices may lower your risk for illnesses and even prolong your life, said Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Even moderate changes can add up to long-term benefits, Hu said. "We're not talking about running a marathon or going to the gym every day."

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or 30 minutes five days a week.

Along with physical activity, a recent study found that a few specific actions can keep you healthy and possibly extend your life: Ensuring a healthy body mass index, eating a healthier diet, staying physically active, never smoking and limiting alcohol to moderate drinking.

Women who adopted all five of the low-risk factors had a projected life expectancy at age 50 that was 14 years longer, according to the study Hu and colleagues published in the journal Circulation. For men, it was 12 years longer.

Healthy steps such as controlling weight also can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, Hu said.

Many people tend to put on a pound or two a year as they approach middle age, and if left unchecked that can mean a gain of 30 to 40 pounds in the long run, contributing to the obesity epidemic, he said.

"Once people gain weight, it's difficult for them to lose weight and keep it off," Hu said.

During the holiday season, it's easy to overindulge with high-calorie foods and to be sedentary – "a double whammy."

Despite food temptations everywhere this time of year, it's important to make sure weight doesn't balloon. Counting calories can be difficult. It's much easier to step on the scale, Hu said.

Here are other tips:

  • When embarking on a holiday meal, select more fruits and vegetables. When preparing cookies and other treats, use less sugar and more oatmeal, fruit and nuts.
  • Aim to get active, even during the season's cold weather and action-packed calendar. Consider stepping outside for a brisk walk amid the holiday hullabaloo.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Moderate drinking is considered an average of no more than one to two drinks per day for men and one per day for women.
  • Watch out for stress over too many social commitments and too much holiday spending.

Stress can lead to overeating, excessive drinking and sleep deprivation, and these can be factors in high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity.

"All these factors are interrelated," Hu said.

It's not too late to get a jumpstart on improving your health and mind, he said. Consider adding nutrition and physical activity goals for the new year – whether that means cooking more healthy meals at home or starting an exercise routine.

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.

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