He may know when you are sleeping, but the only way for Santa to get the job done is to stay up all night on December 24 -- and that can lead to some serious health concerns.
Studies have suggested that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. "You could imagine poor Santa being impaired as someone who is legally drunk," says Michael Decker, Ph.D., an associate professor at Georgia State University and spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine -- just think of the multiple reindeer pileups that could ensue. And even when he's parked on the rooftops, sleep deprivation can cause judgment to become fuzzier, meaning the wrong presents are bound to be traveling down the wrong chimneys.
What's worse is that sleep loss has a cumulative effect, and Santa has been working hard, likely cutting back on sleep, for the entire month preceding Christmas. "As people lose sleep, they have problems responding quickly to specific objects," Decker explains. "You could just imagine the things that would happen if you respond later than you need to ... it's easy to fly over the house or miss the roof."
Once the night is over, Decker recommends that Santa get some extra sleep to restore his deficit -- and while he's at it, he may want to be evaluated for sleep apnea, as obesity is a risk factor.
"We've got to change Santa's bag," says Robert Danoff, D.O., director of the family practice residency program and the combined family practice/emergency medicine residency programs at Aria Health System in Philadelphia, who explains that you should never carry something that weighs more than 10 percent of your body weight, especially when one shoulder is taking on most of the burden. In fact, doing so can cause back strains and sprains, muscle pulls, back spasms, difficulty walking the next day and tingling and numbness down the arms and legs.
Think of the vertebrae in your back as an Oreo cookie, Danoff explains, with the white center representing the disc. If you apply any weight to the cookie, the white center will start squeezing out from the pressure. A similar phenomenon happens in your back, causing changes in posture and injuries. "It is potentially something that could affect him for the long term," Danoff says of Santa.
He suggests changing the bag to have two wide straps that go across either side like a backpack. Better yet, he should switch to a rolling suitcase -- and, seriously, the man needs a few assistants to help carry the load.
According to the NIH, more than 70 percent of adult men in the United States are overweight or obese (just about a third fall into the obese category) and, unfortunately, Santa is just another statistic.
The health risks linked to obesity are well-known, including, among others, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, certain types of cancer and osteoarthritis.
And belly fat, in particular, can cause serious health problems, especially among men, according to The Mayo Clinic. Belly fat can increase risk for insulin resistance, high triglycerides, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, among other problems -- most increased risk happens with a waist size over 40 inches.
"He's not very active, it sounds like," Danoff says of Santa. And when de-conditioned people suddenly over-exert themselves, like the lifting, bending and twisting required on Christmas Eve, they can experience serious injuries. Danoff compares this to a more extreme version of being a "weekend warrior," who only exercises on days off work. "I see them Monday, and they're so sore," he says. "We have to help Santa."
Danoff recommends starting yoga and a regular walking program. "I would have him take walks with the reindeer just to keep in shape," he explains, suggesting that he also clip on a pedometer to increase daily step count. And it's definitely time to start a strength-training program.
Call us germaphobes, but the idea of letting thousands upon thousands of kids sit on your lap at the mall sounds a little... iffy. A big beard can harbor germs and viruses, Danoff explains, which means that if Santa touches his beard followed by his eyes, ears or mouth, he's bound to catch something, especially in the midst of cold and flu season. "First of all we need to get him a hand sanitizer," Danoff recommends. "And he needs to get a flu shot, no doubt about it."
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts save more than 13,000 lives every year, making them the most effective safety device for preventing traffic deaths or injuries. And, according to the National Safety Council, 49 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory seat belt laws. The facts speak for themselves, Santa -- buckle up. Also, since that sleigh is an open one, it wouldn't hurt to be a good role model and strap on a helmet, as well.
Losing sleep on Christmas Eve can also cause a spike in ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and a decrease in leptin, the hormone that signals our brain not to eat. "We're going to eat all the cookies in sight," Decker points out.
While Santa is undoubtedly burning some calories traipsing around the world on the night before Christmas, we think he needs better fuel than sugar-laden cookies and glass after glass of milk. According to the USDA's nutritional database, a plain sugar cookie from pre-made rolled cookie dough will run you around 73 calories a piece. That means that even if Santa eats just one at each house (ABC News once estimated that Santa will hit 132 million homes around the world each year), that's 2,336,000,000 calories all in one night, before the icing, sprinkles and fancy cookie variations -- and before even one glass of milk, which hits 137 calories for one cup of 2-percent. We won't even count how many laps around the block he and Mrs. Claus would have to take to burn those calories off.
Instead, Santa should control portions by indulging in just one large (3-inch diameter) cookie or 2 small (1- to 2-inch diameters) cookies, and enjoy every bite, suggests Katherine Brooking, R.D., co-founder of AppsForHealth.com. She says up to three servings of nonfat dairy each day is OK.
You can also leave Santa some healthy swaps -- Brooking's business partner, Julie Upton, R.D., suggests baking whole-grain cookies featuring spices like nutmeg or cinnamon. "The lowest calorie Christmas cookies tend to be the roll-out cut-out cookies," she says, "and you can always cut back on the butter and sugar in those recipes."
For milk, Upton says to stick with nonfat or 1 percent milk, as 2 percent provides too much saturated fat. "Since Santa is already a little too big around the waist, and that puts him at risk for heart disease, he needs to keep sat fat to a minimum," she explains. "I also think the new almond milks are great because they sometimes have half the calories of traditional skim milk. They are good sources of vitamin E, which is a potent antioxidant." Or, try a heart-healthy soymilk with a plain flavor.
And please, Santa, you're driving a sleigh. Skip the spiked eggnog and seasonal shots.
Before Santa hurries down the chimney tonight, he may want to think twice and opt for the good old-fashioned front door. The Chimney Safety Institute Of America recommends that households give their chimneys annual checks, receiving needed cleanings when applicable. But can you imagine if people don't adhere by those guidelines? The built up soot and dust can't possibly be good for the lungs.
On top of that, getting stuck in a chimney (not unheard of, check just one recent example here) could really slow down the present delivery system.
Living with the short days in the North Pole, not to mention working the night shift in December, can cause a serious deficiency of Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, which has been linked to several health problems. Santa should aim to take a supplement that provides 1,000 IU of the nutrient, Upton suggests. In addition, he should consider increasing his consumption of Vitamin D-rich foods, such as salmon or fortified milk (make sure to leave him some!).
Decker recommends that after Christmas day, Santa and Mrs. Claus should immediately head to the tropics for a sun-soaked vacation to replenish. Added bonus: this can also help to reset his circadian rhythms for better sleep.
We'll give Santa props for covering his head with a hat, but traveling outside all night in a red velvet suit and a touch of faux fur seems ill advised. According to the CDC, your body can lose heat faster than it can produce it in cold temperatures when it's not bundled correctly, resulting in hypothermia. The CDC suggests, in addition to the hat, throwing on a scarf or knit mask, sleeves that are snug at the wrist, mittens, a water-resistant coat and shoes and a few layers of loose-fitting clothing -- Santa should make sure those items are all on his wish list this year.
We've all heard of jet lag, but sleigh lag? An overnight around-the-globe trip would exhaust anyone, especially when you're dropping inside hundred million homes or (more than 1,000 every second). Georgia State University's Decker recommends that Santa plan his itinerary from east to west to make the transition easier. "That way he'll adapt more quickly," he says.
Don't get us started on the inevitable whiplash from moving along at breakneck speeds.
Santa's not alone here -- according to WebMD, more than 8 million Americans perform shift work, which has been linked with serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, ulcers and depression, among others. Santa, and others like him, should seek the help of a physician to try various treatments, including light therapy.
The Doctors stage an intervention about Santa's ever-expanding waistline.