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6 Ways to Stay on Track—Emotionally and Physically—This Winter

Shorter sunshine hours and hectic days don’t mean you have to forgo your healthy routines.

Medically reviewed in September 2020

Updated on September 1, 2021

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As winter rolls in, so do colder temperatures, overcast skies, and earlier evenings. It may be tempting to jump off the healthy-eating bandwagon or to let your regular workouts slide during this time, especially around the holidays. But with a little planning and goal setting, you can make your regular schedule work right up until spring.

Here’s how to stay motivated, focused and emotionally spry, even when the winter doldrums try to get in the way.

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Set realistic goals

When it comes to healthy behaviors (no matter what time of the year), you should start by setting goals, says Janelle Von Bargen, PhD, associate director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Saint Francis Healthcare in Wilmington, Delaware. Get out your calendar and write down objectives for each day, week or month so you can see your progress, monitor how you’re doing, and track your accomplishments. “Then reward yourself, whether it’s with a new pair of workout shoes, a fresh manicure, or a night in by the fire—anything that makes you happy,” she says.

Not sure how to go about setting healthy goals? First, think of targets that are within your reach. “You’ll want to come up with small, realistic goals that you can work toward,” says Von Bargen.

For example, instead of forcing yourself to work out for an hour each day when you know you don’t have time, start with 30 minutes. “A good 20- to 30-minute workout is better than no workout at all,” she notes. If you’re toying with the idea of meal prepping for an entire week each Sunday, begin with prepping for one day. Then work your way up to larger changes. (Hint: Just make a little extra dinner, so you can save the leftovers for your lunch the next day).

It can also help to surround yourself with others who may be working toward similar goals. Friends and family members can help keep you motivated and accountable—and it’s always more fun.

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Plan ahead for exercise and healthy eating

Need to a reason to stick with your workout schedule? The weight gained from taking an exercise hiatus can be harder to work off, according to research. One 2008 study found that the best way to manage your weight is to stay active year-round. That means winter is no time to slack. Getting organized can help.

If you’re finding it hard to get up for your morning yoga class, try laying your clothes out the night before. “Set them next to your bed so you don’t have to go searching for them,” says Von Bargen. “Just jump out of bed, change and go.”

The same goes for afternoon workouts. Have your gym bag packed so when your reminder buzzes, you’re ready to roll. If you’re heading over from work, change clothes before you leave, so you’re less likely to bail out.

Eating-wise, it’s also helpful to prep your breakfasts and lunches ahead of time so you make healthy choices when you’re busy. Overnight oats, chia pudding, breakfast casseroles, and egg cups are easy and nutritious make-ahead options. Having a few handy meal-prep tricks at your fingertips can give you the nudge to set up smart lunches—like grain bowls, wraps, or salads—when you have some extra time on the weekend or in the evening.

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Recognize that anxiety comes—then passes

An uncomfortable holiday party, intense meeting at work or unfinished task (or seven) may leave you feeling anxious—particularly when they all hit on the same afternoon. But Von Bargen wants to remind you that these awkward or stressful moments won’t last forever.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in the moment, tell yourself, “I’m here right now, but I will get through this.” Imagine the day you’re going to have tomorrow, or what you’re going to do after that party or meeting. “This allows you to visualize getting through whatever you’re anxious about and look ahead to less stressful times,” she says. If your anxiety is persistent, it’s a good idea to speak with your health care provider about your symptoms.

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Make an “it” list

When the hustle and bustle sets in, the to-dos can be overwhelming. Von Bargen suggests making an “it” list to feel more organized. Type it up in your phone or computer or write it out with pen and paper. On your list, include anything that will make you feel organized and in control for the days and weeks to come. “You can also make a list for your kids or significant other and include any chores and responsibilities that will make your life easier,” she adds.

Think about things that make you feel good and settled, like straightening up around the house before you go to bed, planning out your family dinners for the week or cleaning out your car on Sundays. These tasks don’t have to be big; they’re just meant to help you feel grounded and productive.

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Delegate

You might get overwhelmed during the holidays because you feel like you’re carrying the burden of everything on your own, whether it’s party planning, packing for a trip, cleaning, shopping—you know the routine. A simple but woefully underutilized way to combat some of the stress is to delegate tasks to friends and family members. Although it may seem easier to control everything yourself, in the end, delegating can help you manage your stress levels.

For tasks around the house, include your spouse and family. The kids can set the table and help clean up common areas. Let your spouse in on some of the more detailed tasks, like picking up the food from the caterer for the big dinner party or buying gifts for family members. When it comes to packing, you may find it helpful to give out specific assignments.

Guests and friends are almost always willing to help with party prep and execution, so don’t be shy about asking them to pitch in. Have them bring a dish, help with décor or run the drinks table. You can also have them help with the invites or manage RSVPs. You can’t possibly do everything, so assign out the things you don’t have time for, or the tasks you know others like to do.

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Log your mood

Through the dark and dreary winter months, it can be helpful to take a few moments to write down how you’re feeling mentally. Journaling or tracking your stress levels—perhaps using an app like Sharecare (available for iOS and Android)—can help you manage your response and identify triggers.

“It allows you to see if you’re stressed at certain times of day, such as when you’re around your coworkers, family members, or when you’re in new situations,” says Von Bargen. When you know the sources of your stress, you can anticipate negative reactions and work to ease those emotions beforehand.

This habit can be helpful for the entire family, too, says Von Bargen. “Get a pulse on how everyone is doing. If they’re stressed out, then maybe you need to take a break from that night’s party or event.”

Sources:

American Psychological Association. “Frequently Monitoring Progress Toward Goals Increases Chance of Success.” October 28, 2015. Accessed June 3, 2021.
Matthew Solan. “Get SMART about your goals to stay focused and on track at any age.” Harvard Health Publishing. September 1, 2017.
Mayo Clinic. “Setting SMART Goals for Success.” December 31, 2020. Accessed June 3, 2021.
American Psychological Association. “Making your New Year’s resolution stick.” November 10, 2019. Accessed June 3, 2021.
American Psychological Association. “Harnessing willpower to meet goals.” December 9, 2019. Accessed June 3, 2021.
Berkley Lab. “Irregular Exercise Pattern May Add Pounds.” February 1, 2008. Accessed June 3, 2021.
P Williams. “Asymmetric weight gain and loss from increasing and decreasing exercise.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(2):296-302.
Mayo Clinic. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” October 13, 2017. Accessed June 3, 2021.
A Mercer, E Warson, J Zhao. “Visual journaling: An intervention to influence stress, anxiety and affect levels in medical students.” The Arts in Psychotherapy. April 2010.

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