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Fit For You: Willpower, Stress, & the Holidays

Africa Studio

This time of year can mean the delights of decorations, merriment, family, and feasts. But the holidays also often bring stress. Whether it’s additional expectations we place on ourselves, a busier overall schedule, or the complex relationships between friends or relatives, this time of year can certainly throw a wrench in healthy habits.

However, Lake Effect contributor and Wisconsin Athletic Club nutrition director Kim Flannery says it’s important to remember that we’re all human, and this time of year can affect each of us in different ways.

"The main thing as we're thinking about this ahead of the holidays is to do what we can now to make mental preparations, physical preparations for setting us up for success," she says.

  • Have a plan: "Having a plan, some kind of a plan, beats every time having no plan. It can be anything and it's what you choose and it should be realistic."
  • Be the person who brings a healthy dish to the party!: "I can't tell you how many people tell me they wish that there was something healthy to eat, yet nobody really wants to be the one to bring it."
  • Don't go to a party (or anywhere) hungry: "Not going hungry to a party... is really on a basic level essential to having any kind of control over your eating - and this applies all year round."
  • Resist the "halo": "Let it be ok that (you're human), that you're not perfect." Flannery says that if we put a halo over our heads and try to adhere too strictly to healthy eating, we enter a space of judgment and most often leave a  party feeling unfulfilled - on many levels.
  • Balance your plate: Think of the general 80/20 rule - 80% of your food during the day is healthy, with 20% of wiggle room. But Flannery adds, you can give yourself even more wiggle room for special occasions without going overboard. "Balance your plate with a little bit of pleasure and with a little bit of nourishing, filling food that's going to help your hunger."

These tips are helpful year-round, but one thing that gets put to the test during the winter is our willpower. But in order to gain more willpower, Flannery says, we must first understand how our brain works in this state.
"Our more primitive brain is that trigger-response habit," she explains. "But if you're not in a present state of mind that is going to play out without any choice."

So if you see a cookie and you eat it that immediate trigger response is food equals pleasure. We activate our willpower when the immediate trigger response is interrupted with mindfulness, Flannery says.

"The willpower side is activated when we can be more deliberate and stop and check in with ourselves and just become more present," she explains. "The importance part of this too, is without judgment. Because the minute you become judgemental, you may think you're present, but that judgment takes you into an emotional state, which then all of a sudden your brain is not as effective at reasoning and you will default to that habit again."

Food during the holidays is typically made once a year, which can often create a sense of enchantment. However, in order to overcome that power, Flannery say,s that you need to realize that your choices are yours alone. Nutritional facts typically won't sway the average person, she says, but paying attention when you eat can have a greater impact.

"Even if you do something that disappoints you, if you can become present in that moment and experience that without judgment, you'll actually get some information that will naturally, possibly disenchant you. And I guarantee that if you eat to much of it - it will be disenchanting."

In addition to the five tips listed above, Flannery says that we should approach this time of year for what it actually is - it is just a few days.

"This is a little bit of a challenging time of year, but let's not make this a big monster that it isn't. It's a few meals, it's a few parties - it doesn't have to be the default from Halloween through to New Year's Day."

Flannery notes that exercise is also an effective tool to help bring a greater sense of presence. "Also, for a lot of people, it will put us into a frame of mind where we feel more healthy and want to do more healthy things."

Just as we exercise the muscles in our body, we have to exercise our mind in order to help us get through daily challenges. "You can look at willpower as kind of like a muscle that if you exercise it, you will have stronger willpower. So practices (like yoga and meditation), they just get your brain used to doing that."

So keeping these tools in mind and, Flannery says, "You can still have the pumpkin pie and work on changing some habits at the same time."

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.