Even though the word "holiday" is supposed to evoke images of carefree fun and frolic, we all know the truth: The holiday season is one of the most stressful times of the year. Amidst all the travel, parties, family gatherings and potential overindulgence in food -- or the pointed lack of all these things -- it's a time when bodies and minds can become vulnerable to illness.
To find out how to stay healthy during these season and beyond, I consulted one of the foremost authorities in preventive medicine. Not only is Dr. Dean Ornish one of the pioneers of wellness research, but he's also one of my personal heroes. His most recent book is entitled The Spectrum: A Scientifically Proven Program to Feel Better, Live Longer, Lose Weight and Gain Health. This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with him at his waterfront office at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., amidst all of his diplomas, accolades, and pictures with presidents. Dr Ornish shared with me four unconventional yet potent wellness tips for keeping happy and healthy during the holidays and far beyond.
"The holidays are about connection. The book I wrote before The Spectrum was called Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health. People who are lonely and isolated are three to 10 times more likely to die prematurely than people who are in a community.
"One of the reasons why people get depressed during the holidays is because it forces them to realize what they don't have in their lives. You see all the Norman Rockwell pictures of people celebrating with their families, so if you don't have much in the way of friends and family, it's a particularly depressing time because it just reminds you of what you don't have.
"The holidays can also be a catalyst for changing that, to the extent that you can make it a priority to reconnect with friends and spend time with them and realize that it's not just a luxury. This isn't something we do after we're done with the important stuff -- it is the important stuff. And that's part of the value of science: It raises awareness of what really matters. And now the science shows that connecting matters. So connect with friends, connect with family. In particular, forgive people who you think did you wrong. This doesn't necessarily excuse what they did, but it frees you from the anger that can be so toxic.
"Also consider to volunteer in a hospital, go to a pediatrics ward, go to the San Francisco Food Bank, help feed some hungry people -- that's the real spirit of Christmas anyway."
2. Eat mindfully.
"If you're going to eat something, give it your full attention. When you're drinking fine wine, you don't just gulp it down; you savor it. Treat your food the same way.
"There's a five-minute meditation in the back of the book by my wife called 'Eating with Ecstasy.' You spend 5 minutes eating what you really like. That doesn't become an indulgence and you don't have to feel bad about it. Involve all your senses, smell it, look at it, taste it.
"Some other eating tips for the holidays: when you get to a party, eat before you go so you don't end up eating all the fatty foods. Don't munch on food as you're standing by the buffet, since you might think that the calories don't count if they're not on your plate.
"Eat slowly and savor the food. Eat mindfully. You'll enjoy it more and get more pleasure out of fewer calories. It will also give your body time to realize when you're full so you stop eating when you've had enough calories."
3. Make self-compassionate resolutions.
"The idea of making New Year's resolutions has real value if you take out the moralistic part of it. The whole idea is to be compassionate with yourself. See, if you go on a diet, you're bound to go off the diet. If you go on an exercise program, at some point you're going to go off that exercise program. And then you have all that guilt, shame, and humiliation which itself is so toxic. And once you call foods good or bad, it's a very small step from there to say 'I'm a bad person because I eat bad food,' and then to say, 'Well, if I'm a bad person I can then just finish the pint of ice cream.'
"In The Spectrum, I don't say foods are good or bad. Rather, I say that some foods are healthier than others, ranging from the most healthful Group 1, to the least healthful Group 5. What matters is your overall way of eating. So if you indulge on one day doesn't mean you're cheating or your bad; it just means that you're to eat more healthy the next day. Don't have time to exercise today? Do it another day. Can't meditate 20 minutes today? Do it for two minutes.
"In all our research, we've found that the more you change, the more you improve. And the more you change your lifestyle, the more you improve the way you feel. And what is sustainable is pleasure and feeling good and freedom. And when you start to make these changes, you say, 'Oh, when I do this I feel good, and when I do that I don't feel so good', and so it starts coming out of your own experience. And because it's not all or nothing, it's sustainable."
4. Indulge every once in a while.
"Indulging yourself every once in a while is good. We found that the people who are overall the healthiest allow themselves indulgences. It's not sustainable otherwise. Fear of dying is not sustainable; joy of living is. What you include in your diet is as important as what you exclude. What comes out of your mouth is as important as what you put into it. The trick is to be able to say, 'This isn't a diet because all foods are included.'
"The most important thing is to spend time with people that you care about, and to do it in ways where you can really speak from your heart and let people know how you feel during the holidays. Tell the ones that you care about that you love them and how much your relationship means to you and that you want to spend more time with them in the coming year. Those are the kinds of New Year's resolutions that are both healing and sustainable."
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