November 20, 2019

Creating your winter survival plan

Don't let your New Year's resolution be about staying fit, eating healthy and all of those things you didn't do over the fall and winter.

Start now by developing a winter survival plan, so during the New Year you can focus instead on achieving your goals of learning a new hobby, traveling to new destinations, or even volunteering for a worthy cause (all of which sound far more exciting than promising never to eat another cookie.)

For those living in the Midwest, winter can be a challenging time to stay fit. The bitter cold temps, snow-covered sidewalks, and the holidays filled with all kinds of decadent food can make it difficult to make healthy choices. But, Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a distinguished psychologist with UW Health's Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, has a recommendation to help individuals stay on track.

"Develop a winter survival plan," she said.

What to ask when making a winter survival plan

To begin, she recommends answering a few essential questions:

  • How am I going to exercise in the cold weather?

  • What can I do to eat healthy, especially around the holidays?

  • Who can I turn to for support and encouragement?

The primary reason individuals gain weight during the winter is because they become sedentary. And while we all feel as if we've gained at least 10 pounds, Dr. Mirgain said that's not quite right.

"Research shows, somewhat surprisingly, that on average individuals tend to gain 1 or 2 pounds over the course of the winter," she said. "The problem is that they often don't lose that weight, and over the course of years one pound can turn into several."

Learn to enjoy winter

We all know that winter in the Upper Midwest means cold and snow. According to Dr. Mirgain, the best thing we can do is to embrace it.

"It may take a change in your mind-set, but learning to enjoy the unique aspects of winter can really make a difference," she said.

If you're going to exercise outside, make sure you have the proper gear. That includes warm clothes and multiple layers so you can adjust as you get warmer when you're active. Make sure you have sturdy shoes and consider purchasing inexpensive "treads" you can strap to the bottom for extra protection on icy surfaces.

"Embracing winter can really help you stay committed to your goals," Mirgain said. "It's important to focus on what you enjoy."

Stay active, no matter the weather

It can be hard to stay motivated with the temperature reaching the single digits. But that's when a workout partner can help make a difference.

"Find someone to exercise with," said Mirgain. "You'll be less likely to stay under the covers when you know someone is waiting for you."

She also recommends making exercise fun. Consider ice skating or cross-country skiing as a family, or even building a fort in the snow. And, of course, there's the shoveling. But if the thought of going outside leaves you cold, combine your efforts.

"If you're finding it difficult to go outside to exercise, combine it with an errand so you're already out of the house," Mirgain said.

Walk to do your errand instead of driving. Take the stairs or park farther away from the store entrance. And with the holidays, there's the shopping so take some extra laps around the mall. The small things we do can really add up.

"Ten minutes is better than nothing," said Mirgain. "Just get moving."

Another option is to sign up for a fitness class, or try a fitness video at home and have a designated time for when you will exercise. Having a structured time is important and can help you stay on track.

And, there's an added benefit: Being active can help you better manage the stress of the holiday season and even boost your mood.

Reward yourself for meeting goals

Getting a toddler to eat his vegetables can take some persuasion. In some ways, adults are no different. Consider setting rewards for yourself when you accomplish your goals. For example, if you meet your exercise goal for the day, consider treating yourself with flowers or time with a friend.

"By rewarding ourselves, we're acknowledging that we took a step toward our goal and that increases our motivation to do it again," said Mirgain.

She cautions, however, that treats should not be food- or drink-based. A high-calorie coffee drink can wipe out any exercise benefits, so stick with those things that make you feel good and don't undermine your efforts.

Have a party (eating) plan

The biggest challenge with holiday festivities isn't just the type of foods typically served, it's the amount of those foods that we consume. Standing around a party buffet, we might not realize just how much we're actually eating.

"Having a party plan can really help," said Mirgain. "Don't arrive hungry to a party. Once you're there, survey the food options and select one or two items so you don't feel deprived, but aren't over-consuming."

And, don't forget that drinks have calories too. Alcoholic beverages and warm drinks can have a surprising number of calories and fat, so you need to pay attention to what you're drinking.

During the winter months, people also tend to experience more hunger and crave sugars, carbohydrates and comfort foods. Eating regularly and drinking lots of water can help fight the urge to snack or overeat at a meal.

Mirgain also recommends discovering seasonal produce. Citrus fruit tends to be at its best in the winter months, while vegetables such as kale and squash can be delicious and are good for you.

"Soups are an easy way to enjoy vegetables and get that sense of comfort food," Mirgain said.

Make sure you have healthy food options around the house for your meals and snacks. And if you find yourself with leftovers from parties or meals, bring them into the office to share so you're not tempted to finish off that green bean casserole by yourself.

Don't expect perfection

Having a winter survival plan is a daily commitment, but it shouldn't be an overwhelming one.

"Taking one small action, such as making a healthy meal or not criticizing yourself, is important," Mirgain said.

And, she recommends having a relapse plan in place. If you anticipate having a problem sticking to your goals, you can figure out a resolution and be prepared for when you get off track. To help you stay focused, it's also important to have a support team in place with encouraging friends and family.

In the end, however, the most important element is to be realistic.

"Don't expect perfection," Mirgain said. "Just consider how you can support yourself in the best way."