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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Maintaining weight and sanity through the holiday season

As published in the Washington Observer-Reporter.

"Aren't you going to try a piece? Is that all you're going to have?"

These are the comments Jennifer Berry of Canonsburg recalls when she thinks of eating pressures around the holidays.

The scene is universal: Tables covered with brightly-colored table cloths and filled with the seasons most tempting foods. Not to mention, Aunt Betty pulling on your heart strings about how little of her famous apple pie you shoveled onto your plate.

Berry, a fitness instructor with a long-time love for group exercise, tries to cut herself a little slack.

"I'm very much a believer in moderation," said Berry. "If you deprive yourself of something, you're going to want it that much more." 

This is a sentiment echoed by Jacqueline Ely, registered dietitian at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center, though with an extra caveat.

"There's no bad food," said Ely, "just bad portions." 

Ely recognizes that enjoying certain foods is often a part of how we enjoy the holidays, but there are ways to prevent ourselves from over-indulging. 

"I always recommend a 'cheat meal' once per week," said Ely, "So, make your weekly cheat meal Christmas dinner, if that's the one you really want to enjoy."

Knowing that even "healthy foods" have a way of ending up covered in butter or brown sugar around the holidays, Jennifer Berry has a tip of her own: Offer to bring the vegetable. 

"I can make it as healthy as I want," Jennifer said. "Then, I can make half of my plate the vegetable I brought, and half the other foods I want to eat." 

Waistlines run into trouble, though, when a single cheat meal turns into a day or week of grazing and equally as calorie-dense leftovers, which is a great way to incorporate another Ely recommendation: recipe modification. 

"Take the leftover turkey, but don't make turkey, biscuits and gravy when you get home," said Ely. "Try a healthy, hearty turkey soup instead."

Registered clinical exercise physiologist and Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center operations manager, Rebecca Feist, isn't nearly as forgiving when it comes to holiday exercise schedules. 

"We try to encourage people to stay where they are," said Feist, "And, in this part of the country, there are still lots of times you can get out of your house and do something, even if it's only two laps around your block." 

In fact, Feist recommends many easy-to-implement modifications to exercise schedules to make the "no mercy" goal more attainable, modifications like interval training. 

Interval training involves periods of lower intensity exercise studded with short periods of high-intensity activity--a technique that greatly increases calorie burn, even if a workout can only last a short period of time. 

"If you normally walk very slowly," said Feist, "you can increase the speed of your walking--whatever that is for you--for 30 seconds every minute, or whatever you can tolerate."

Another tip is to break up a workout throughout the day. 

Waiting for cookies to bake in the oven? Do a 20 minute, at-home workout until the timer dings. Do another 15 minutes while your husband searches for the tree-topper in the basement. 

According to Feist, the calorie burn is the same whether you perform a workout in one lump sum or scattered throughout the day.

Maintaining healthy habits is essential to managing stress over the holidays. Both Ely and Feist warn of the snowball effect stress and a decrease in healthy habits can have, creating a less enjoyable holiday season and seriously threatening one's ability to maintain their weight.

"The alternative is to feel overwhelmed in general," said Ely, "And that is where I see most people fall off the wagon and give into bad eating or a lack of exercise." 

For Jennifer Berry, the hard part isn't exercise; It's food. 

She texts friends for extra bits of encouragement, and has learned to brush off the Aunt Bettys in favor of her own self-discipline. 

"Choosing healthier foods is a mindful choice everyday," said Berry, "And, you can't out-exercise a bad diet."

Ode to Thanksgiving and a Nod Toward Gratitude Journaling

As published in the Washington Observer-Reporter.

My love and excitement for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, cranberry sauce and my Mom's pumpkin pie catapult me to levels of joy that few other things can inspire. 

It's not just "things" that make me happy; It's the feelings the accompany the things. 

Even when the parade is so-so, it's realization that, in that moment, everything is my definition of perfect. My husband and father look like cookie cutters of one another with sections of the day's newspaper identically in front of their faces. The house air is heavy with the smell of onions, green peppers, celery and butter sweating in my mother's frying pan. And, there's the universal understanding that the day's focus is to enjoy simple, almost childlike details like how high the Macy's balloons got to fly that year.

Thanksgiving, without even trying, teaches me important lessons about being thankful.

If you listen to positive psychology experts--yes, they exist--there are ways to extend this feeling beyond a few days in November.

Gratitude starts with the will to find it. 

It is relatively few days of our lives that we're granted promotions, get engaged or win a contest, but, luckily, these bigger events hardly encompass all that we have to appreciate. 

Mindfulness or presence in the moment is required for us to dig a little deeper. When we are in a constant state of waiting for the end of the the work day, waiting to go to sleep or waiting for the concert this weekend, we are ignoring huge portions of our lives and stacks of blessings within them. So, pay attention. 

You woke up this morning, right? That's a start. Maybe you ate exactly what you wanted for breakfast. That's awesome! 

A great next step, according to reams of research, is to write these little victories down. The practice can be called journaling, gratitude journaling or that-file-I-have-on-my-computer-where-I-write-stuff-I-like. You can even buy beautiful, leather-bound journals that have the word gratitude embossed on the front in gold leaf. Whatever floats your happy little boat. 

Here's the point: In a study conducted by Dr. Robert Emmons (perhaps the world's leader in gratitude psychology) and Dr. Michael MucCullough, participants who wrote down a few things for which they were grateful each day for ten weeks, were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. And, that's just one example.

Maybe journaling won't work for you, but, luckily, it isn't the only option. 

Prayer, meditation and even mentally thanking someone (which is very much akin to the first two, if you ask this girl) can all work to harness our positivity. 

One overriding happiness-helper, however, is to remain engaged with your thankful thoughts. 

Writing, "I am thankful for my toaster oven," isn't valuable unless you are truly in love with that toaster oven. 

Another way to think of it is this: Choose thoughts that resonate with you. Check in occasionally and ask yourself, "Do I believe what I'm writing?"

The road may be bumpy at first. Concentrating on grateful thoughts may feel awkward or unnatural, but fake it 'til you make it. 

Positivity snowballs: The more you have the more you want. Just like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day.