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Sticking to healthy habits during winter

It’s a new year and a fresh start. Perhaps you are planning to add some new healthy habits to your lifestyle, like exercising, cooking nutritious meals at home, getting enough sleep or meditating. But the cold, dreary weather and shorter days can sap your motivation and leave you feeling down.

“It’s very easy to get off track during the winter months,” says Pratik Thaker, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. “It’s cold, so people who routinely walk or jog may not want to go outside. Many people are staying indoors more than they used to because of the pandemic. And it can be tempting to eat a lot of comfort food during the winter months.”  

Here’s how to make good habits stick, even on the days when you want to curl up on the couch.

Wake up earlier

Getting up early may be the last thing you want to do on a cold winter morning, but it can give you the time and structure you need to stick to good habits. Here’s why:

  • Research shows that getting up and going to bed at the same time each day can help you sleep better.
  • Rising early gives you access to more daylight since the sun sets so early during the winter months.
  • Waking up 30 to 60 minutes earlier than usual can give you the time to work on a new habit or goal.
  • Completing a healthy habit first-thing (like following along with a yoga video or guided meditation) will give you the motivation you need to stick to good habits all day long.

While waking up early may be tough at first, your body will adjust after a few weeks – and you may find yourself waking up without the alarm clock.

Establish and stick to a routine

Dr. Thaker says creating and maintaining a routine is a good way to make your habits stick.

“Decide when you’re going to work out and what you’re going to eat for lunch and dinner,” he says. “Staying disciplined and creating a schedule makes sure you stay on top of healthy habits.”

Here are some factors to consider when creating a daily routine that works for you:

  • What time you’ll wake up and go to bed.
  • What you’ll eat at each meal.
  • When and how you’ll make time for your physical health.
  • When and how you’ll support your mental health.

Adding a little structure to your days can help you ensure you take action on what matters to you.

Have fun with healthy meals

There’s nothing wrong with having a cocktail, pizza or cookies now and then. However, indulging too often can leave you feeling sluggish and less motivated to pursue your goals.

Here are some ways to make winter meals more enjoyable:

  • Savor seasonal produce. Enjoy all of the fresh fruits and vegetables that are at their best this time of year. Think kale, brussels sprouts, pomegranates, oranges, potatoes and winter squash.
  • Try healthy versions of comfort food dishes. These meals are simple to make, easy to freeze and require little clean-up. Try sheet-pan meals with roasted fish or chicken, potatoes and veggies; ground turkey and marinara sauce over zucchini noodles or whole wheat pasta; chicken noodle or vegetable soup; or vegetable-packed chili.
  • Prep your meals in advance. Chop your vegetables for the week on Sunday afternoon or during your lunch break if you work from home. Make a double-batch of your one-pot meal and freeze the leftovers for another night. Bake a big batch of healthy muffins and freeze them to eat later.

Find exercises you enjoy

Few people want to get out of bed for a workout they don’t enjoy. Keep trying new workout styles until you find something that sticks.

You can take advantage of a fitness app’s free trial, meet a friend for a socially distanced walk, take an online dance class, or try yoga, weightlifting, Pilates, barre, kickboxing or whatever else interests you.

Care for your mental health

“When it’s dark and gloomy outside, that plays a role in how you feel,” says Dr. Thaker. “Some people experience seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).”

Eating nutritious foods, staying physically active, getting enough sleep, connecting with loved ones and spending time outdoors can help you get out of a slump. But if your feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety don’t go away after you implement these healthy habits, talk to your primary care provider or a counselor for support.  

Get more rest

Getting enough sleep has so many benefits. Sleep:

  • Supports your immune system health.
  • Gives you energy for all of your new habits.
  • Helps you manage stress.
  • Supports your mental health.
  • Helps your body function at its best.

“Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night,” says Dr. Thaker.

Protect your immune system

When you aren’t well, it’s hard to stick to your good habits. This year, COVID-19 means you may have to take some extra precautions.

“Flu season occurs during the winter months, so if you’re not taking care of yourself, you may be more susceptible to getting sick with the flu or other viral illnesses,” says Dr. Thaker.

Avoid getting sick by:

  • Washing your hands regularly, especially when you get home, before eating or touching your face, and after using the bathroom, coughing or sneezing. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Wearing a mask. Use a cloth face covering when you’re in public places and when you’re not able to maintain social distancing.
  • Practicing social distancing. Stay at least six feet apart from people who don’t live in your household.
  • Getting a flu shot. “If you have the vaccine in your system, your body can better fight the illness because it has already been introduced to the flu virus,” he says.

Practice self-compassion

“It’s never too late to get back on track,” says Dr. Thaker.

Forming new habits isn’t easy, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. Aim for consistency over perfection and you’ll be more likely to make progress in the long-run.

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