As the days become shorter, the weather grows colder and the holidays wind down, many of us look forward to settling in for a long winter’s nap. But winter doesn’t have to be a time of inactivity — and now is a good time to prepare yourself for the many challenges the season can bring.
The coming months can be particularly stressful in terms of both mental and physical health. Here are seven tips, courtesy of BJC experts, to help keep you safe and healthy well into the new year.
- Stay active
Cold weather doesn’t have to slow you down. There are plenty of great winter activities like skiing, sledding or ice skating, but even going for a walk every day can help you stay fit and healthy. Being active through exercise helps keep your immune system strong, reducing your risk of getting colds, flu or other common winter illnesses. Exercise also causes your body to release mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins, which may reduce your risk of developing a type of depression often tied to fall and winter weather called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Here’s more on staying active:
- Exercise will get your blood pumping and increase your energy and calorie burning both during your workout and after. Not only is exercise necessary for weight control — it also helps with mood and heart health.
- It’s important to remember that you are your most important piece of exercise equipment. Don’t feel you have to give up your exercise routine if you can’t get to a gym. Try starting the day with crunches, push-ups, planks, squats and lunges. Park farther away at stores or work. Take the stairs, instead of the elevator or escalator.
- If you’re new to exercise, you’ll want to take it slow at first, increasing your time and intensity gradually. Take time to stretch and cool down. Start with just a five- to 10-minute-a-day exercise routine and continue that for a week. Each week add an additional five minutes to work up to 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
- If you venture outdoors, know your limits and don’t push yourself too hard. Cold is a stress on the body. So is exercise. Together they may be too much. Start slowly by warming up your muscles first. Try walking or light arm pumping before you engage in outdoor physical activity.
- If you cannot safely leave your home during inclement weather, it’s still possible to get a good workout. Consider using resistance bands for strengthening, dance for aerobic activity, and yoga or Pilates for flexibility.
- Watch what you eat
The cold weather often makes us crave heavier “comfort foods,” and the holiday season especially can be an unprepared dieter’s worst nightmare. This is a time when gaining weight becomes all too easy. To avoid an overdose of calories — particularly when attending events — Missouri Baptist Medical Center clinical dietitian Kristen Nea, RD, LD, offers the following tips:
- Go light on the alcohol. Alcohol can cause weight gain in four ways: It stops your body from burning fat, it's high in calories, it can make you feel hungry and it can lead to poor food choices.
- Eat before you go. Many people think that not eating all day before a gathering will make them consume less. However, this often backfires when people become so hungry after they get to the party, they end up eating way too much.
- Don’t hover around the food. Get your plate of food and move to another area to eat. You’ll be less likely to be tempted to go back and eat more than you really need.
- Fill one plate with the foods you want and don’t go back for seconds. By using a plate, you get the added benefit of seeing how much you’re eating.
- Don’t eat food just because it’s there. Eat the items you really like and don’t bother with the foods that you don’t really care about.
- If it’s a potluck, bring a healthy dish or platter of fruits and veggies. But be careful of dips and high-calorie dressings, which can make a healthy food a not-so-healthy food.
- Dress appropriately and look out for hypothermia and frostbite
Many people spend time outdoors in the winter working or enjoying winter sports. Outdoor activities can expose you to several safety hazards, but you can take these steps to prepare for them:
- Wear appropriate outdoor clothing: layers of light, warm clothing, mittens, hats, scarves and waterproof boots.
- Layer up for warmth. Wear an inner layer that doesn’t absorb moisture, an insulation layer to retain heat and an outer layer to protect you from wind, rain and snow.
- Wear a hat to avoid losing heat through your head.
- Protect your feet. Insulate them with warm socks and keep them dry.
- Choose mittens over gloves because your fingers can warm each other.
- Keep clothing dry; if a layer becomes wet, remove it.
Hypothermia — abnormally low body temperature — is a dangerous condition that can happen when a person is exposed to extremely cold temperatures.
- In adults, signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion or feeling very tired, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. In babies, signs include bright red, cold skin and very low energy.
- Be on the lookout for later signs of hypothermia: moving slowly, trouble walking, slow heartbeat, shallow breathing and blacking out.
- Call 911 right away if you think someone might have hypothermia. Get the person inside and wrap him or her in a warm blanket.
Frostbite is a type of injury caused by freezing. It can lead to a loss of feeling and color in the areas it affects, usually the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers and toes. Frostbite can permanently damage the body, and severe cases can lead to amputation (removing the affected body part).
- Signs of frostbite include a white or grayish-yellow skin area, skin that feels unusually firm or waxy, and numbness. If you notice signs of frostbite, seek medical care immediately.
- Be careful out there!
Rick Tao, MD, MS, Washington University physician and medical director of the Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital emergency department, says the winter months pose a higher risk of injury if you’re not careful. Common concerns Dr. Tao sees in the emergency department during the winter are falls, cold exposure, heart attacks from over-exertion and viral illnesses. Here are a few prevention steps to keep in mind:
- Watch your step: Pay attention to the surface you're walking on and be alert to the possibility that you could quickly slip on an unseen patch of ice. Use good-soled footwear and take short, shuffling steps, while bending slightly and staying flat-footed with your center of gravity over your feet when walking on icy or snowy ground. Avoid the temptation to run to catch a bus or out-race traffic when crossing a street.
- Shoveling snow: The No. 1 risk people think about when shoveling snow is a heart attack. People with known cardiac diseases, stroke, orthopedic problems and who are physically out of shape should avoid this activity. Even if you’re healthy, warm up before you shovel by stretching your back and exercising your abdominals, legs and upper-body. Then start by shoveling small, manageable areas. Pace yourself, take frequent breaks, and don’t hold your breath when gathering, lifting or throwing the snow. Remember to stay hydrated and have a cool-down period when you're finished.
- Avoiding illness: Make sure you get adequate sleep, wash or sanitize your hands frequently, eat well-balanced meals, stay physically active and find ways to de-stress and relax. Most importantly, get vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19.
- Reduce heart attack risks
“Deadly heart attacks increase during the holiday season,” says Justin Sadhu, MD, MPHS, Washington University cardiologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “Deaths from coronary artery disease are about 30 percent higher during December and January than in summer, and a very large national study also identified distinct spikes in deaths around Christmas and New Year’s.”
Dr. Sadhu describes some risks that can contribute to holiday heart attacks and offers tips on how to help prevent them:
- Denial of symptoms and delays in seeking medical care may play a large part in why heart attacks peak around the holidays. People don’t think their chest pain is serious and may attribute their symptoms to stress or overeating.
- Awareness is key. Know the warning signs that can indicate a heart attack — persistent chest, arm or jaw discomfort, pressure, tightness or burning; shortness of breath; or nausea and vomiting. If you experience any of these, be sure to seek prompt medical attention.
- Cold temperatures can trigger heart attacks. Sudden exertion in cold weather when you’re not used to it, such as shoveling snow or starting a new exercise regimen, can do major damage to your heart.
- Stress can easily rise during the winter holiday season, increasing the risk of heart attacks. To reduce stress, plan ahead and make a list of all the tasks you need to accomplish. Make sure to take time to relax during the busyness of the season.
- Get a good night’s sleep
Sometimes what you do need is a long winter’s nap, especially if you’re not sleeping well.
“Most people are sleep-deprived,” says Oscar Schwartz, MD, BJC Medical Group sleep disorder specialist and medical director of the Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital Sleep Disorders/EEG Center. “People delay going to bed and try to fit everything possible into their day — and the last thing they acknowledge is that they have to sleep.”
For a better night’s sleep, Dr. Schwartz offers the following tips:
- Seven to nine hours of sleep a day is considered normal, although the hours don’t have to be consecutive. If you make up sleep with a nap, make sure you nap before 3 p.m. and limit it to an hour.
- Setting a regular bedtime and wakeup time is helpful.
- Sleep disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome include warning signs, such as loud snoring; stopping breathing or gasping for breath during sleep; feeling sleepy or dozing off while engaging in daily activities; difficulty sleeping three nights a week or more; unpleasant tingling, creeping feelings or nervousness; and the urge to move your legs when trying to sleep. If you experience these issues, consider a sleep study.
- If you work nights, improve sleep quality during the day by using earplugs and blackout drapes.
- Caffeine works well for short periods, but it shouldn’t be consumed in such amounts that it disturbs one’s ability to sleep.
- Alcohol intake can have stimulating effects and can affect your sleep quality, as well as your ability to fall and stay asleep.
- Don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat right before bed. Your lightest meal should be the meal closest to bedtime.
- Complete exercise by 6 p.m. for a 10 p.m. bedtime.
- Limit screen time or other electronic device use prior to bedtime. Exposure to light, such as use of electronics and watching television, can affect your sleep.
- Over-the-counter sleep aids can be more problematic than helpful because of possible side effects, such as grogginess the next day.
- Pets have a habit of waking us up throughout the night, so have them sleep in their own beds.
If you have difficulty sleeping, seek help from a professional such as the accredited Sleep Disorders Center at BJWCH. For more information, call 314-996-8680.
- Manage your stress — especially during the holidays
Many of us have a love/hate relationship with the holiday season, says BJC Employee Assistance Program consultant Kiarma Webster, MSW, LCSW, EMDR. This year, maybe even more so because of all we’ve been through the past couple of years.
“We love spending time with family, reconnecting with old friends, eating holiday treats and the expression on our loved ones’ faces when we give them the perfect gift,” Webster says. “What we hate about the holiday season is long lines, crowded parking lots, time pressures, family conflict and feeling even more overwhelmed by having to navigate it all during an ongoing global pandemic.”
She offers the following tips to help you finish the holiday season without becoming a Grinch:
- Reflect. Think about what the holidays mean to you. Focus your time and energy on the activities you value the most. For example, if one of your core values is helping other people, make sure you spend part of your holiday volunteering.
- Make a plan (and stick to it). Use to-do lists. Budget your money and your time, then work within the confines of your budget. It can be tempting to say yes to every holiday invitation, but if you overload your schedule, you won’t enjoy any of it. Also be aware that radical changes in routine can cause stress. Try to stick to your regular schedule as much as possible.
- Say “no” sometimes. It’s OK to say “no” during the holidays. Often, it’s necessary. If an activity or gift doesn’t fit comfortably into your plans — or budget — say no. It’s also OK to leave the party early or take a store-bought dish to the potluck. (No one will remember anyway!)
- Delegate. Make sure everyone around you helps, even the smallest child. Instead of committing to hosting the entire holiday, suggest a progressive dinner or potluck for your extended family. This can be a lot of fun and a lot less work.
- Sleep. Make sleep a priority. Sleep-deprived people are cranky, less organized, less efficient and have poor problem-solving skills. You (and those around you) will enjoy the holidays more if you are well rested. It will also make your waking hours much more productive.
- Manage your stress. Spend 5-15 minutes a day engaged in a stress management activity. Listen to relaxing music, enjoy a quiet cup of tea, practice deep breathing or do whatever helps you to feel centered and calm. The holidays can be a demanding time, and the more demands that are placed upon us, the more important relaxation becomes.
- Feeling sad is normal. If you feel sad during the holiday season, don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you. Feeling sad is normal. Some of us may miss our loved ones who have passed away. Some of us may remember past holidays as being happier, and that can make us sad. Some of us may feel frustrated, discouraged or sad if family or friends disappoint us during the holidays. Sometimes we expect people to change problem behaviors just because it’s the holiday season, and when they don’t, we feel let down. Some of us become distracted by what the media says we should be doing during the holidays and feel sad that we aren’t having the experience we believe we should have.
If you feel sad during the holidays, reach out for help. Talk to a close friend about your feelings and experiences or consider seeking professional help by checking in with your physician, spiritual leader or a mental health therapist. If you need help finding who to talk to, see if your work has an employee assistance program (EAP), call your health insurance for a referral, or check out online resources for direction (such as Startherestl.org or Psychologytoday.com).
Remember, seeking help doesn’t mean that something is “wrong.” We all need someone to talk to sometimes to support and assist us through difficult times, even festive ones.