Flipping the Script
Holiday Months as a Time of Progress
It is common fitness and nutrition advice to focus on maintaining weight, rather than losing weight, during the holiday season.
In some ways, this is sensible – during the holidays, your normal schedule is disrupted more often than usual, and there are also more opportunities to feast at special events or graze on candy and treats at the office. Setting high expectations for progress could be counterproductive.
However… this doesn’t add up with the fact that, every year without fail, my new clients who onboard in November and December typically do fabulously. Defying the expectation that the holidays will tank their efforts, they build extra-resilient skills for special events and travel in the first few weeks of their coaching experience, tackling the challenges head on and – in my opinion – coming out stronger for it.
“Make Life More Complicated”
This post is partly inspired by a recent topic that Gretchen Rubin has been covering on her podcast, “Happier.” On episode 189, Gretchen and her co-host (and sister) Elizabeth Craft ask the question, “Should you make life more complicated?”
They use the example of getting a pet during a stressful time. While many people would discourage getting a pet (or remodeling your house, or starting a new exercise regimen) when life is chaotic, there is a counterintuitive peace that comes from having a point of focus. Just like a new pet can provide a much-needed element of distraction and fun when times get tough, a new exercise or eating regimen can surprisingly provide balance when things feel spread too thin.
Does it make life more complicated to invest commitment in your health and fitness goals during the months of November and December? Maybe. But…
Let’s Be Honest
There are really only a few holidays – in the literal sense of a 24-hour day – between now and January 2019. And on each of those days, there’s typically only one real holiday meal.
But, somehow, this period of about 60 days gets pulled into the gravity well of just two or three scattered days.
In reality, if you ate literally whatever you wanted for only two meals and didn’t exercise on those two days – let’s say Thanksgiving day and Christmas day – those two days have little to no impact on your health or habits. They simply don’t exert that much statistical control over your biology. Let’s say you’re aiming for about 1600 calories per day to lose weight. Two days of 3,000-5,000 calories apiece may slow your net weight loss, but those isolated events will likely not cause actual weight gain (disregard post-feast water retention). The likelihood is that you would continue to lose weight, but maybe with a bumpy week each time.
However, what actually happens is that people mentally take off their “healthy hat” and put on their “holiday hat” not for two meals, but for two months.
If you need to be aiming for about 1600 calories per day to lose weight, two 5,000-calorie days will probably not shift things around much. But 60 2500-calorie days certainly will.
Distorted Thinking and Self-Limiting Beliefs
What I see as a coach, bottom line, is that people allow themselves to fall into distorted thinking. Their behaviors reflect not how busy the holidays really are, but instead their beliefs about food, self-care, fun, and happiness. The two-month “break” reveals how people really feel about their healthy habits – that healthful living is something that prevents fun.
What if we thought of healthy habits as something that make us happier? That make us more capable of enjoying life and all it has to offer, including the holidays?
This simple shift makes a tremendous difference, and makes saying “yes” to exercise and “yes” to smart nutrition – and, by extension, saying “no” to the empty sluggishness of overeating and a sedentary life – much easier. It’s simple to disregard the cookies in the break room when you have a firm conviction that you will feel better without them – not a self-pitying feeling of deprivation. It’s easy to go to the gym when you sincerely believe that you will have more energy and feel more vibrant when you do.
This is where asking yourself empowering questions can help you clarify what is factually true, and sift away the overlay of your beliefs.
So what is true about the holidays? For the next 60 days, there will be more opportunities to “treat yourself.” There will probably be more stress. Your co-workers will be baking cookies and leaving them in the break room. You will have holiday parties at your child’s school. There will probably also be more disruptions to the regularly scheduled programming than usual – travel, special events, and family dinners.
It’s completely true to say: “The holidays could be a challenge to me.” However, it is a self-limiting belief to say: “I can’t live healthfully through the holidays,” and there’s a world of difference between those two statements.
Here are some examples, as we start the holiday season, of some self-limiting beliefs, re-framed with an important question that opens up potential for growth:
“I can’t follow a diet at holiday dinners.”
Let’s entertain for a moment the idea that these two or three holiday meals are going to affect your progress (and disregard the fact that there are 20-something days between each of these meals).
This all-or-nothing proposition assumes that – in order to be healthful – you need to decline all your favorite treats and eat nothing but the string beans. Instead, ask yourself:
“What healthful options could I CHOOSE?”
Maybe you could have one less dessert. Maybe you could opt to keep your hand out of the bowl of mixed nuts, and just eat at dinner. Maybe you could choose to only eat one plate of food, instead of seconds. Maybe you could get one spoon of your favorite indulgent tradition instead of two spoons. Maybe you could make sure to fill up on vegetables, protein, and water as your “main courses,” so that you can enjoy treats without feeling ravenously hungry. You could contribute a dish to a holiday meal that is calorie- and macro-friendly while still delicious. There are many ways to make holiday meals more healthful that do not require you to be “on a diet.”
Sure, maybe you’re aiming for 1600 calories a day and you may eat 2400. But that’s still not 5,000. And it’s not every day.
“I’m too busy to think about it this time of year.”
This is often an issue of perceiving that healthy habits require a massive overhaul that takes up a lot of mental bandwidth. Instead, ask yourself:
“What is the smallest change that I could make, which would be easy to stick with for the next 60 days?”
You don’t need to change everything or start meal prepping like a pro – maybe just a few things need to shift. Maybe a daily walk or switching from soda to seltzer is enough to shake things up and keep you moving forward.
“Exercise would take time away from my family.”
Invoking familial sainthood is a clever dodge around self-responsibility. On a practical level, is it possible that your family does not need your presence twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? Or that your family will be not robbed of joy if you steal away 30 minutes for a walk or jog, or for the gym?
What if we considered the fact that we are better family members, more energetic and able to show up for our loved ones, when we actively take care of ourselves? Ask yourself:
“Where can I make time for myself?”
Note: this does not say, “find” time.
This requires you to think ahead and carve it out. Wake up 30 minutes earlier, or use down time when nothing’s happening. Does it need to be literally on a holiday morning? No. But my guess is that, if you choose your time with thoughtfulness, your family will not even notice your absence.
“I don’t have the willpower to withstand the temptation of all the holiday treats.”
This is simply not true. First of all, you do have control of yourself, even though sometimes treats feel irresistible. You are fully in the driver’s seat for your behavior and actions and attitudes.
However, there’s no doubt that willpower takes a beating when you’re repeatedly exposed to a temptation, so ask yourself:
“How can I organize my environment so that my willpower can catch a break?”
Can you hide treats? Use opaque containers? Put things in cabinets and out of sight? At work, can you sit facing a different direction so that a co-worker’s candy bowl is outside your line of sight? Can you take breaks in a different break room from the one filled with pastries and baked treats? Can you throw or give snacks away once you realize you’re coming back for seconds and thirds and fourths?
Challenge your perceptions of what the holidays could mean for you, and decide what goals you want to achieve in the next 60-ish days!