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For many people, the holiday season will feel different this year. Gatherings with your extended family may not be possible, community celebrations may go virtual or be canceled, and many other beloved traditions may be upended by safety considerations. Yet we can still find joy and inner peace by applying lessons we’ve learned about resiliency, hope, patience and flexibility during difficult times.

“Because of the restrictions of the pandemic, we may be able to find and experience the true spirit of the holiday season with more clarity,” says psychology professor Jonathan Kanter, who is studying how people cope with social distancing. Indeed, by embracing the change, we can focus on what’s truly important: relationships, health and practices that express love, compassion and gratitude. Here are 12 ways to celebrate safely and happily.

  1. Start healthy new traditions. Embracing change means seeing it as an opportunity to shake things up in a positive way. Instead of spending the holidays cooped up in the house, surrounded by rich snacks, take the celebration outdoors. Exercising in natural settings diminishes stress, enhances sleep, improves mental health and can even add years to your life. Some fun activities to consider: taking a family walk after dinner to admire the neighbors’ holiday lights, ice skating at a local rink, building a snowman, or playing outdoor games, such as flag football. Also get the family involved in making healthy new holiday recipes, such as our shaved Brussels sprouts and pomegranate salad and our cinnamon spice carrot pie with pecan topping.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal. Focusing on what’s good in your life — and writing it down — has many benefits. It can help you feel calmer, get a new perspective on what’s important to you and help you become more self-aware. A recent study reported that expressing gratitude can enhance emotional well-being, reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improve relationships. Other research suggests that practicing gratitude improves sleep quality, reduces blood pressure, enhances overall health and increases resilience and mental strength during difficult times. What’s more, regular gratitude journaling has been shown to increase optimism and happiness. In other words, the more we count and record our blessings, the more blessed we are likely to feel!
  3. Put self-care at the top of your to-do list. To reduce holiday stress, advises Dr. Kanter, “look for small, restorative moments, like how your hands feel when washing them under warm water.” Also devote ten minutes a day to mindful meditation. Sit in a relaxed position, close your eyes and focus on your breathing and the present moment as you let stressful or upsetting thoughts float away. Many studies have reported remarkable benefits from this simple practice, including reduced inflammation, lower blood pressure, improved brain health and memory and better moods. Prayer is another great way to soothe the mind and spirit, enhancing cardiovascular wellness.
  4. Practice mindful eating. A wonderful way to avoid overeating — and enjoy your food more — is to slow down and savor each bite. Mindful eating helps you understand your body better, manage food cravings and feel full sooner, with less food. As you shop for holiday foods, prepare them or sit down for a holiday dinner, involve all of your senses in the experience. Include colorful fruits and vegetables, fragrant, heart-healthy spices and interesting shapes and textures in your meal. Put your fork and knife down between bites and consider how you feel. “You can tell when you’ve had enough of the flavor,” registered dietician Monica Meadows recently told U.S. News & World Report. “The taste buds get satiated and it’s not pleasurable anymore.”
  5. Brush your teeth after meals. During the holidays, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of grazing all day. And not surprisingly, studies suggest that on average, Americans pack on about five extra pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. One simple but effective hack to combat holiday gain is to brush and floss after each meal. Not only does that signal that you’re done eating, but you’ll be less tempted to ruin your minty-fresh breath with another bite of pie five minutes later. In addition, taking excellent care of your teeth and gums can powerfully reduce your risk for heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, certain cancers and many other chronic or life-threatening conditions.
  6. Laugh every day — intentionally. One of our favorite Bible verses starts, “A merry heart doeth good like medicine” (Proverbs 17.22). Many studies bear this out. For example, a 2020 study found that laughing once or more a week slashed the risk of suffering a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular events by 40 percent, as compared to laughing less than once a month. Based on this and other research with similar findings, we actually prescribe laughter to our patients. Wonderful ways to include more humor in your life include reading funny books, watching comedies or hilarious internet videos of children and pets doing silly things, and laughter yoga, which combines self-triggered mirth with deep yogic breathing to draw oxygen deep in your body. Also ask friends to tell their favorite jokes or get a joke-a-day calendar to start each day with a chuckle. All of these actions reduce stress, contribute to better blood vessel health and make life more fun.
  7. Rethink your drink. Consuming just one or two sugar sweetened beverages daily — such as energy drinks. fruit drinks or soda — raises risk for a heart attack or dying from heart disease by 35 percent, diabetes risk by 26 percent and stroke risk by 16 percent, a Harvard study found. Conversely, a six-year study of more than 20,000 people found that those who drank five or more glasses of water daily had half the risk of developing fatal heart disease than those who swigged two or fewer glasses daily. Coffee and tea also have a variety of health perks, including reducing risk for stroke and dementia, according to a new study published in PLOS Medicine.
  8. Consider alcohol alternatives. Many prospective studies have linked moderate alcohol intake (one drink a day for women and two for men) to a 25-40 percent lower risk for cardiovascular disease. However, alcohol consumption has a wide range of short- and long-term risks that increase with the amount you drink, including high blood pressure, various cancers, injuries and car crashes. In a 2017 study, consuming more than one drink a day significantly raised risk for atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that is a major risk factor for stroke. If you don’t currently consume alcohol, CDC and the BaleDoneen Method recommend against starting. Quench your thirst with plain or sparkling water flavored with a spritz of lemon or lime, or try our herb and fruit-infused flavored water recipes as healthy alternatives.
  9. Volunteer. Helping others is good for the heart — literally! Large studies have shown that people who volunteer regularly have healthier blood pressure levels and feel more connected to their community. Donating your time to a worthy cause may also give you a greater sense of purpose in life, which in turn is associated with lower risk for heart attacks and strokes and increased longevity, according to pooled findings from studies of 136,265 people. Another study found that people who performed kindness activities for seven days had a dramatic boost in happiness — and the more acts of kindness they committed, the more their joy increased.
  10. Dance to your favorite music. It’s important to stay active during the holidays, with at least 30 minutes a day of aerobic exercise. Not only is dancing a fun way to keep fit, but it may also help keep your memory sharp, according to intriguing new studies. For example, a study of older adults who were initially free of dementia analyzed the effects of various physical activities, including golf, swimming, exercise classes and biking. Only one of them — dancing — decreased risk for memory loss (by 76 percent) in the five-year study. Busting some moves on the dance floor — or in your living room — also improves muscle tone, coordination and balance. And like other forms of aerobic exercise, it boosts levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin.
  11. Sleep well. Along with getting the seven to eight hours of sleep that is optimal for heart health, it’s also important to stick to a consistent sleep schedule. A recent study linked “social jet lag” — going to bed and waking up later on weekends or holidays than you do on weekdays — to poorer health, as compared to sticking to the same schedule seven days a week. Other research links skimping on slumber to increased risk for heart attack, strokes, high blood pressure, obesity and depression. Check out our five natural strategies to get the sound, restorative rest you need for optimal cardiovascular wellness.
  12. Make beautiful memories. As you consider how to simplify and reinvent the holidays, here’s something else to keep in mind. Ultimately, what really matters most are the experiences you share with your friends and loved ones — not what’s on the dinner table or in the presents you unwrap. Take the time to express your love, suggests Dr. Kanter: “Together, look through old family albums and videos. Recollect your favorite shared memories. Remind each other about their qualities that you love, the things they have done for you in the past, how you appreciate them. We all want to be seen and understood for who we are and who we want to be. Let them know that you see them and how you really feel. That is what the holidays are about.”

Holiday health resources

For more ideas how to protect and enhance your physical, mental and spiritual well-being during the holidays, visit these websites: