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How to outsmart 5 top holiday health challenges

Money stress, sugar overload, lack of sleep and time. The holidays can put a serious strain on our health. But not this year. Here’s how to have dessert, stay up late, clink glasses and more — without sacrificing your well-being in the process.

Hallie Levine By Hallie Levine

Even the biggest fans of the holiday season must admit that this time of year has its own set of health challenges. There’s the annual threat of getting sick with a cold or the flu — and now COVID-19. Holiday gatherings come with all sorts of sugary temptations that make it hard to stick to healthy eating goals. And who wants to exercise when it’s cold and gray outside?

But this is a time to be merry! And good news: You can enjoy all the things that make the holidays great without getting sick, going over budget or feeling super stressed. That’s according to Melanie Jordan of Your Healthy Life Made Easy. She’s a national board-certified health and wellness coach in Las Vegas. All it takes is adding a few simple steps to some of your traditions and celebrations.

Here’s how to tackle five of the season’s biggest health challenges with simple strategies. Best of all, they fit right into your festivities.

Holiday health challenge: Gift giving and money stress

If you’re on a tight budget — and let’s face it, aren’t we all? — give the gift of your time. “Older adults often have more time than money on their hands,” says Jordan. She suggests giving your loved ones handwritten gift certificates. Make it good for a low-cost activity the two of you can do together.

“You can present them with a pass that provides them with a free two hours with you to do whatever they want,” she says. “This way you keep social connections going, which can be extremely valuable for both of you.” Just be sure to still follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for connecting safely with others, adds Jordon. And do only what you’re comfortable with socially.

Have a little money to spend? Focus on gifts that support a healthy lifestyle and emotional well-being, says Teri Dreher, R.N. She’s the founder of NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago. Some ideas include:

  • A stainless-steel water bottle. “Forget the coffee mug. A well-insulated water bottle encourages hydration and earth-friendly habits,” says Dreher.
  • Fresh flowers or a houseplant. Being around flowers and plants has been shown to lower stress and improve mood.1
  • Scented candles or essential oils. “Aromatherapy alleviates anxiety and depression by stimulating the limbic system,” says Dreher. That’s the part of the brain that controls mood and emotion.
  • A small bookstore gift card. “Reading and listening to audio books is great for building brainpower and focus,” says Dreher.

Finally, don’t forget the elderly people who are all alone on the edges of your life. “Not only do they have no one to exchange gifts with, they may be silently struggling to get by,” says Dreher. “Bringing over a meal and offering a little company allows you to keep an eye on them.”

Holiday health challenge: Dessert overload

What’s a holiday get-together without sweets? A plain old gathering. So by all means, treat yourself. But here’s how to avoid the overload: “Make ‘one and done’ your holiday dessert mantra,” says Jordan. “Choose just one cookie. Two isn’t going to taste any better.”

Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity. Pick a treat that you truly enjoy. Then give it your full attention: Slow down and mindfully savor it with all your senses, says Jordan. “Don’t deny yourself completely. That’s not realistic and it leads to rebellion,” she adds. “Just choose wisely.”

Holiday health challenge: No time to exercise

Break free of the all-or-nothing frame of mind when it comes to exercise. Instead, adopt the mindset that something is always better than nothing, suggests Jordan. “Even 10-minute chunks can make a difference,” she says.

Her advice is supported by a recent national study. It looked at people who got as little as 10 minutes of light to moderate exercise each week. The study showed they had an 18 percent lower risk of mortality during the 14-year study period compared with inactive people.2 Some examples of moderate exercise include:

  • Brisk walking
  • Biking
  • Swimming laps
  • Doing water aerobics
  • Walking stairs
  • Sweeping or vacuuming
  • Raking leaves
  • Dancing

“As long as you’re moving 10 minutes at a time at whatever clip is appropriate for you, you’re doing something positive,” says Jordan. Need motivation? Give yourself a free, healthy reward when you’re done. For example, watch your favorite TV show, enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, or call a good friend to catch up. And don’t be afraid to multitask. Walking and talking, or dancing in front of the television, counts as exercise.

Holiday health challenge: Skimping on sleep

Getting enough sleep may be the last thing on your mind during the busy holiday season. But lack of sleep can dampen your immune system. That can make you more likely to catch a virus, whether it’s a cold, the flu or COVID-19.3 And getting sick can really put an end to your holiday fun.

The best way to not only get enough sleep but also good quality sleep? Power off electronics at least an hour before bedtime, says Jordan. That means turning off your phone, TV and computer.

Then do something relaxing. You could soak in a warm bath and read a good book. Or do a few yoga poses or tai chi moves. One study looked at the effects of exercise on sleep in older adults with sleep problems. It found that doing yoga or tai chi significantly improved sleep.4

Holiday health challenge: Overdoing it on alcohol

It’s fine to indulge in some holiday cheer. But too much alcohol in one night can disrupt your sleep and increase your risk of injury from things like car crashes or falls.5 Alcohol is also full of empty calories (as in, it has no nutritional value). And it lowers your inhibitions, so you’re more likely to make poorer food choices.

The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans recommends alcohol only in moderation, if at all. Moderation is defined as two drinks a day or less for men. For women, it’s one drink or less a day.6 If you choose to drink, follow each alcoholic drink with a glass of water, says Caroline Susie, R.D. She’s a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a registered dietitian in Dallas.

It also helps to never go to a social event on an empty stomach. “When you skip meals or save your calories for the party, you will always overeat,” Susie explains. Instead, have a high-protein snack like yogurt or a handful of nuts before you go. That way, you’ll be likely to make better choices.


1Hall C and Knuth M. An update of the literature supporting the well-being benefits of plants: A review of the emotional and mental health benefits of plants. Journal of Environmental Horticulture. Journal of Environmental Horticulture. March 2019, 37(1): 30-38.

2 Zhao M, Veeranki SP, Li S, et al. Beneficial associations of low and large doses of leisure time physical activity with all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality: a national cohort study. British Journal of Sports Medicine. October 31, 2019, 53: 1405-1411.

3Mayo Clinic. Lack of sleep: can it make you sick? November 28, 2018. Accessed June 13, 2022.

4Vanderlinden J, Boen F, and van Uffelen JGZ. Effects of physical activity programs on sleep outcomes in older adults: a systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. February 5, 2020, 17(11).

5Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol use and your health. April 14, 2022. Accessed June 13, 2022.

6U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. U.S. Department of Agriculture. August 24, 2021. Accessed June 13, 2022.


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