The holiday season: make it healthy, meaningful and memorable

For many years, I greeted December and the upcoming holiday season with both anticipation and trepidation. I looked forward to time with family and friends, but more or less dreaded the “holiday hoopla” that seemed to cover the month from start to finish.

While some people are quite happy with making it a month of indulgence, often adopting a “the more the merrier” approach when it comes to office parties, get-togethers, food, wine, gifts, etc., it’s often a time of year where expectations fall short, healthy lifestyle routines take a back seat, tempers flare, colds and flu find their way into busy households, anxiety and depression take hold, and many wind up completely exhausted by the time they ring in the New Year.

To make this busy time of year more manageable and more meaningful, I’ve adopted a few tips and tricks that work like magic. I hope they’ll work for you too.

Avoid over indulgence. Period. More food, more wine. More shopping. More gifts. More parties. “More” won’t make you happier or healthier. The solution is quite simple. Learn to say NO and don’t feel guilty.

Manage your calendar. Whether on your own, with your partner, or as a family, schedule and plan only as many gatherings as you can agree to. Schedule time for yourself, your partner, and as a family to ensure you’re not shortchanging the people you want to be with most.

Be active. Whether or not you exercise regularly (and you should by the way), a little physical activity every day will benefit your physical and mental health. If you exercise regularly, keep up your routine. If you can’t make it to the gym or do things as you normally would (kids on break from school for example) then switch up your usual activity for another one – swimming or skating with the kids perhaps? If physical activity isn’t exactly top of your list, put it there and follow through. Even a brisk daily walk around the neighbourhood for half an hour counts and offers terrific health benefits.

Make time for yourself. It’s not selfish to carve out 30 minutes of “me” time each day over the holiday season. If you don’t make it happen, nobody else will. Go ahead and soak in the tub, paint your nails, read a book, enjoy a hot cup of tea, or meditate. You deserve at least 30 minutes of self-care a day.

Volunteer. The great work done by charitable organizations in your community could be greater still if you pledged a few hours of time to help out.

Watch what you eat. Do you really need that side plate full of cookies? Do you really want to feel sluggish after that second glass of wine? What about that enormous portion of food being heaped onto your plate? Before you eat or drink this month, take 10 second to ask yourself if you need it, want it, or if it’s the healthiest choice you could make. If you do this, at least nine out of 10 times, you’ll make a better choice that might include loading your side plate with fresh veggies and hummus, enjoying sparkling water, or asking for or serving yourself a more reasonable portion of food. Don’t deprive yourself. Do eat and drink mindfully.

Stick to your sleep routine. The occasional late night probably won’t hurt, but sticking to your sleep schedule will leave you feeling refreshed and better able to cope throughout the season. Want an even better night’s sleep? Don’t eat or drink a thing for three to four hours prior to going to bed.

Connect and disconnect: Not everyone has someone to share the season with. For some, there are no family get-togethers, parties, festive buffets, gifts, or people to talk, laugh and make memories with. We all know someone who is lonely, in pain, or sick. Connecting with these individuals will brighten the season for you and for them. But when it comes to your phone, disconnect as often and for as long as you can. Be present with those you cherish – your time together is the greatest gift of all.

Sports medicine – treating the athlete in all of us

Despite teaching fitness classes for almost three decades, running for years, and cycling, boxing, skiing, playing tennis, taking up Hip-Hop in my forties, and enjoying just about every form of physical activity, including many activities with my dog, I have never considered myself an athlete. I often joke that I enjoy everything, but don’t excel at anything – and this is just fine by me, since really, it’s the participation that counts. When you see kids running around playing, perhaps even breathless from a game of tag, they’d look at you as though you were half-mad if you stopped them and said: “good for you guys for getting some great exercise”. To kids, it’s all about fun, and when it comes to being active, “fun” is what we adults should ideally be aiming for too.

Over the course of my active life, I’ve had many injuries – ankle sprains, a dislocated shoulder, hamstring and quadricep injuries, achilles injuries, knee pain, and what was until recently, my personal favorite – a herniated disc from bending over in some awkward way to retrieve a shoe from a closet.

Three years ago, while doing squats followed by high kicks and side kicks, I heard a crunch sound come from my groin, that was immediately followed by searing pain. Being in my forties but still very flexible, I couldn’t imagine it was anything serious, stuck an ice pack on it, and told myself I’d be better in a day or two. Sadly, that was not the case. The pain grew worse, my intense stretching regime did more harm than good, I limped for months, I took anti-inflammatory meds prescribed by a physician, spent weeks on bed rest, and mourned my active lifestyle. I even cancelled a trip I had been looking forward to.

Finally, upon the recommendation of a marathon-running friend, I reluctantly made an appointment with a sports medicine doctor, imagining my weakened self sitting in the waiting room along with much younger, professional athletes with muscles from Brussels. That was not the case at all. In fact, I found myself, ice pack on my groin and all, sitting in the waiting room among people of all ages – some who looked ultra fit, and others who to be frank, looked as though their idea of physical activity was holding a cold drink in one hand while cheering on their favorite team from the couch. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not judging. I’ve been known to hit the couch with a cold one myself… GO RAPS!

That day, I learned that sports medicine doctors treat everyone – all ages, all fitness levels, and more musculoskeletal conditions than I knew existed. I also learned that while my injury was serious, there was hope for a reasonable, if not full recovery.

Sports medicine doctors specialize in the non-operative treatment of musculoskeletal conditions (since very few require surgery) and seeing one promptly after an injury is a good idea. It may not have been your corner kick that got you injured, it might have been booting a bag of leaves to the curb – or pruning a tree (neck pain anyone?), lifting the grandkids, a slip and fall, or just doing too much of something you enjoy. In Canada, you don’t need a referral to see a sports medicine doctor – just find one near you, call them up, and hand over your health card. That’s how I found Dr. Douglas Stoddard of SEMI in Toronto who has been helping me work through injuries of my own.

Sports Medicine doctors can maximize non-operative treatment, help guide your road to recovery, and make referrals to other specialists if required. They’ve seen it all – acute injuries such as sprains and strains, overuse injuries that nag on endlessly, fractures, arthritis, and mystery aches and pains you can’t quite point to, but that keep you from the things you enjoy. They also have additional training in the non-musculoskeletal aspects of sports medicine – things like head injuries and concussion, nutrition, supplement use, return-to-play decisions, and overall healthy lifestyle promotion. If you want to talk about aches and pains with someone whose eyes won’t glaze over, these physicians are your people.

Even if it turns out that a little rest and some time will be your best medicine (sometimes they are, often they’re not), a sports medicine doctor will evaluate your injury, guide you through the acute stage of an injury (advising on best type of pain relief for example), help you find ways of remaining active, and work with you to determine when you’re ready to progress from one stage of rehab to the next. Don’t expect a prescription for a month or two of strict rest, ordering in pizza, and movies. They know what’s in your best interest, and once through the acute phase of an injury, you should pretty much expect they’ll want you moving with care and taking an active role in your recovery.

As far as I’m concerned and speaking from personal experience, people don’t take soft tissue injuries as seriously as they should. “It hurts but it won’t do me in,” they say. True enough, but there is a cost to these injuries and related pain if they persist – to your physical and mental health. In time, inactivity makes us weaker and gradually robs us of many of the things we enjoy and that benefit our health most – exercise, work, socializing with friends and family, time outdoors, even the activities of daily living like running errands, cooking, and walking the dog.

My advice: whether you’re inactive, moderately active, a weekend warrior, or a professional athlete, have an injury evaluated promptly. Early intervention could save you a lot of time, pain and aggravation later.

Most Canadians fall short when it comes to physical activity

Catherine, trail running.

If you think it’s just kids and teens getting too much screen time these days, think again. How many hours a day do you spend in front of your computer, on your phone, or watching TV? Probably more than you think.

In its first-ever report card, Participaction, an organization promoting active healthy living, has given Canadians over the age of 18 a D for overall physical activity, finding most are far too sedentary and fall short on getting the heart-pumping activity they need for their health. In fact, adults get an F when it comes to moderate-to-vigorous activity, with the report finding that only 16 per cent of adults get the recommended 150 minutes each week.

In many ways, being active has been engineered out of our lives. We drive to work; we sit at desks; etc. The key to increasing physical activity, is to engineer it right back — by making it part of our everyday routines. Easy ways to do this include walking the kids to school instead of driving them, hopping off public transit a stop or two early and walking the rest of the way; and running errands on foot instead of taking the car. These simple measures alone can make a significant impact on our health. Since heart-pumping activity (activity that raises your heart rate to the point that you would have difficulty carrying on a conversation with the person next to you) is also important, it’s important to consider the many ways you can get more of this type of activity on a regular basis. A dance class, jumping rope, a game of tennis, lane swimming, a brisk I-mean-business walk each evening after dinner, badminton at your community centre, or an aquafit class a few times a week, are all good options.  It’s also important to remember that when it comes to exercise, it all counts — so if you can only squeeze in 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening, it’s perfectly fine. Think about it: just 20 minutes a day of heart-pumping activity a day, each day of the week, and you’ll be almost at the 150 minutes you need weekly. As your fitness increases, before long you’ll be able to exercise for longer at this intensity and you’ll find yourself meeting or exceeding this 150-minute minimum with ease.

The report card also suggests that adults who put in more than 7,500 steps per day likely meet the guidelines, but that only 52 per cent of adults do this. Use your phone or a pedometer for a few days to see how many steps you take on average and as you walk, be mindful about picking up the pace whenever you can. Get that heart pumping!

Physical inactivity can lead to increased risk of chronic diseases, cognitive decline, falls and social isolation among older adults — each of these alone is a good reason to get moving. It’s also recommended that adults aged 18 to 64  incorporate weight and bone strengthening activities at least twice a week, while older adults should also work on improving balance to help prevent falls.