Avoiding overload: plan ahead to keep fit, stay well during holidays: experts

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TORONTO - Anja Akkawi admits the thought of her upcoming cruise is giving her extra motivation to hit the gym these days.
But breaking a sweat is beneficial beyond just keeping physically fit, particularly during the often hectic festive season.
"It gets a bit stressful," said Akkawi of the holidays, prior to a workout session with her personal trainer, Jody Boynton. "I've been able to deal with it more because going to the gym has helped a lot."
"As much as you hate to go, that half-hour just with your music on or watching a program and moving, by the end of it I feel great."
In addition to twice-weekly sessions with Boynton - mixing free weights, skipping and kickboxing, among other activities - she does yoga with her husband and has stepped up her cardio workouts at home. She even plans to bring her workout wear on vacation.
The ballooning social calendar of cocktail parties, family gatherings, gift exchanges and potlucks can certainly take its toll on waistlines, wallets and overall well-being.
But experts say there are ways to cope with holiday excess and to enjoy the festive season without burning out - provided you plan ahead.
FITNESS
Boynton, who's with Extreme Fitness, said where many people make their mistake is unplugging entirely, then suddenly finding they've packed on anywhere from five to seven pounds - standard weight gain during the holidays.
"Consistency's going to count a lot. When you turn it off, the machine's going to take a long time to get running again," he said.
"If you can fit some kind of activity in, whether it's skipping, running some stairs, doing some push-ups and sit-ups in your living room, going for a 20- to 40-minute walk before dinner, getting off a couple of stops earlier on the subway - just planning ahead."
In addition to stepping up the cardio, people should also be maintaining their muscle mass because that's what burns calories, he added.
FOOD
Rena Mendelson, a professor in the school of nutrition at Ryerson University, said it's important that people have a food strategy and be prepared to stick with it.
Prior to heading out, she recommends having a bowl of soup to ensure you don't arrive with a ravenous appetite. Another useful thing is wearing a belt or clothing that gives "feedback" when you've had too much to eat or drink.
Once you've arrived, think along the lines of food groups: go heavy on veggies, light on dip, and opt for fruit. Cheese is a good source of protein and helps you feel satisfied, but avoid fattier options, she said.
While light beer and wine are OK, Mendelson said it's good to think of consuming less alcohol because it has loads of calories.
One way of cutting back and still having a drink resembling a cocktail is to add a little fruit juice to fizzy water, she suggests.
Before piling food onto plates, a good strategy is to think in terms of filling half with veggies, one-quarter protein, another quarter starch. Mendelson also advises aiming for one plate only.
"Just to try to enjoy what's there and seek the satisfaction in those amounts rather than adding on more and more until you feel uncomfortable," she said, noting that it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register the stomach is full.
While people may want to indulge in sweets brought into the office, Mendelson said it's best to do so in moderation.
"There's room for the occasional treat but it can't be all day every day," she said. "It doesn't make it special anymore."
ILLNESS
Dr. Michael Libman, director of infectious diseases at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, said as long as individuals are generally in good health, they don't have to deprive themselves of activities or contacts during the holidays over concerns of becoming sick.
Basic hygienic measures should be taken all the time - not just because of the flu or because individuals will be crowded together with people at a party or in other settings, he said.
"If you've been in contact with other people or touching surfaces that other people have touched, it's in general a good idea not to put your finger in your mouth or in your nose. Those are the ways these things are spread but it's not special to this season or the flu or anything else," he said.
Libman said it's actually periodically important to get colds and little stomach upsets, because it's only by getting those things that you build up immunity.
"If you actually manage to succeed in preventing yourself from acquiring all of those infections, you'll just remain susceptible to them until later in your life."
MENTAL WELLNESS
Kismet Baun, senior communications adviser at the Canadian Mental Health Association, suggests creating a stress management plan with healthy ways to unwind like walking the dog, getting a pedicure or listening to music, and to slot in time for one of those activities daily.
If you are feeling stressed by hosting family or an event, remind yourself the situation is temporary and try not to feel overwhelmed, Baun said.
"There are things that you aren't going to be able to do, and I think if you face that rather than thinking, `I have to do everything. I have to exercise, I have to feel good, I have to make everything perfect on the table.' I mean you're just not going to be able to do that," she said. "Understand that there are limits."
Above all, it's important individuals remember to give back to themselves as well as others.
"Give some thought about what is most meaningful about the holidays and allow yourself to do what you enjoy the most rather than what is expected from you."

Organizations: Ryerson University, McGill University Health Centre, Canadian Mental Health Association

Geographic location: TORONTO, Montreal

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