WINTER BREAK is a prime opportunity to get back on track with health and fitness goals, make progress on personal projects, and pack in some hard-earned adventure. But you’ll be jolting your body with activity and may even find yourself on a germ-infested airplane or two. Here’s some expert advice on how to take advantage of time off, mentally and physically, without compromising your health.
First things first: the influenza virus can wreak havoc on travel plans and holiday fun. “We tend to minimize the impact, because people count every illness they have in winter as the flu,” says Gregory Poland, an infectious-disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic. That misconception can be dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in winter 2017–18 true influenza hospitalized one million people in the U.S. and caused 80,000 deaths. Poland suggests getting your shot as soon as the vaccine is released, typically in September or October. And yes, you need it every year.
The hardest part of restarting your fitness routine is getting past the inertia, says Steve House, athlete and cofounder of the training site Uphill Athlete. Rather than plan elaborate workouts, make your goal simply to be active every day. “Something is better than nothing,” House says. “Don’t hold yourself to the impossible.” A 15- minute jog can become a 30-minute run, and before you know it you’ve got a decent dose of aerobic exercise.
Unload that massive to-do list swirling around in your head. “Your brain did not evolve to remember, remind, prioritize, and manage relationships with more than four things at once,” says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. “You want to pull anything that’s grabbing your attention out of your head.” Sit down and list every task you want to accomplish during your break. Once your mind is empty, you can relax and regain focus.
A full schedule can erode our sense of well-being, says Laurie Santos, a Yale University psychology professor. “Research shows that the feeling of having a lot of free time matters a lot.” Grab your calendar and block off a period each day without any plans. “It may mean one less party or fewer cookies baked,” Santos says, “but it can greatly improve your sanity.”
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, and avoid bright light before bed, says Clete Kushida, director of the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Research. Then soak up at least 30 minutes of daylight when you rise—this will tell your brain it’s time to be alert.
“We don’t always make the best use of social time during the holidays,” Santos says. Instead of asking family and friends the same old questions, shake it up. “Research shows that meaningful conversations make people feel happier and more connected,” she says. Tackle substantive topics: What are your goals for the new year? What are you most grateful for? ■