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Keeping healthy over the Christmas break

Dr Ross Walker
15 December 2021

COVID has changed the world, possibly forever. All of our lives have been affected, whether we have been exposed to the virus or not. Our liberties, personal habits and interactions with each other are markedly changed compared with pre-pandemic times.

I would suggest the majority of us are experiencing the very common burnout after such an arduous year, with most of our thoughts turning to the holiday break.

Although the holiday break should always be a time for rest, reflection and rejuvenation it often becomes a time for excessive partying, overeating, overindulging in other bad habits, not to mention those interactions with relatives who we hardly see throughout the year. There is now a new term for this overdose of relatives at Christmas. The term is hyper-co-presence. I would prefer to call this an unavoidable overdose!

Rather than heading towards the inevitable Christmas weight gain, the very common New Year’s Day hangover and the perennially failed New Year’s resolutions, why not resolve before the holiday season gets into full swing to really make this break the chance to make a fresh start.

Are there any bad habits or life circumstances you would like to change?

Consider these issues before the holidays truly kick off and all of the above starts to creep into your days, affording you no benefit by the time 2022 gets into full swing.

Decide what life habits you want to break right now and which ones are not working for you. A very good start here is to create a journal or a diary where you actually write down in decreasing order of importance your life goals for the coming year including the list of bad habits that are not serving you well and you wish to change.

What is stopping you right now from not making these changes? If, for example, you wish to cease smoking but every Friday night you go down to the hotel with your friends and have a few drinks, this will certainly weaken your resolve and this pattern may need to change. Many people, as another example, are comfort eaters, often sitting in front of the television consuming unnecessary food. Rather than doing so, now that it is daylight saving, why not go for a walk instead.

Nature abhors a vacuum. When you change a bad habit that has occupied a significant amount of your time, whether it be excessive eating, drinking or smoking, it should be replaced with a better, more, healthier habit.

One of the greatest examples I have witnessed in my medical practice was a patient of mine who was a serious alcoholic. He consumed about 20 schooners of beer per day leading to a severe dilated cardiomyopathy. This gentleman made the decision to stop alcohol on my very strong advice and replaced this with an interest in Egyptology. All of the money he used to spend on alcohol was placed in a bank account. He had eventually saved up enough money to take him and his wife to Egypt where he had the trip of a lifetime. His severe heart disease returned to normal and he is still a regular patient of mine 25 years later.

Any new habit requires discipline. You need to discipline yourself for a full month for this new habit to be trained and to become a normal part of your life. It is very important, also, to associate rewards with this new habit. For example, once I had destroyed my knee through too much sport, I needed to replace my very enjoyable soccer and squash games with a less rigorous form of exercise.

I, therefore, started using an exercise bike 13 years ago but my reward was to watch an enjoyable TV series whilst exercising to associate pleasure with the habit rather than the boredom of the exercise bike for 30 minutes, staring out the window. I am delighted to say that I have already broken three exercise bikes through excessive use and am now onto my fourth. My favourite TV series is 'The West Wing'. I’ve watched the seven series through for the fourth time. Jed Bartlet is the President every President should be. What a pity we don’t have world leaders that emulate this character! 

A number of years ago I wrote a book titled 'Diets Don’t Work'. The reason diets don’t work is that you go on a diet in the same way as you go on a holiday. You always come back from the holiday. 12-week programs also have a finite ending which sees you return to your old habits. When you have created new, good and healthy habits, these need to stay with you for the rest of your life. You need to have a commitment to maintaining these habits as part of your new way of thinking.

Life is not about making the big decision to be healthy and happy, it is about making 30-50 small decisions every day of your life. Decisions like “I wont eat that biscuit”, “I’ll walk up the stairs rather than take the escalator”, “I will not yell at that fool who just cut in front of me in the traffic”. These are split-second decisions that can either take you towards good health and happiness or bad health and unhappiness. Why wait for the new year to make these decisions and resolutions? Why not start right now before the, often bad, habits of the holiday break take over.

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