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How to Maintain High Energy throughout the Holidays

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 16 December 2009

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

Article roughly 925 words.  Reading time 4 minutes.

Three years ago, “the most wonderful time of the year” became a much dreaded time of year for me. New family dynamics required 5 Christmases (tell me about it!). Of course there was also the office party – wouldn’t be proper to miss it, right? And I also went to my best friend’s get together: it was my first year living away and I had not seen her in months, so I didn’t want to let her down.

BedrestI made it to all of these events, and despite me not being a drinker, I ended up sick as a dog for New Year. While everyone was toasting and hugging at midnight, I was praying to fall asleep so I could be relieved for a few hours – kind of took the fun out of the holidays!

I recently came across new research that helped me understand exactly what happened that year, and I’d like to share it with you along with my recommendations so you don’t run into the same situation.

Too Little of a Good Thing

Increased partying often means reduced sleeping. When we are sleep deprived, we don’t feel our best and so we look for comfort in food.  The pleasure in food comes mainly from sweet, salty and/or fatty tastes, and from layering flavors and textures. We also know that being sleep deprived leads to diminished motivation and self-regulation. So fewer hours of sleep not only means we find the fatty foods even more appealing than usual, but also that we will be less able to resist it. And with it being highly available throughout the Holiday season, we eat a lot of it.

Too Much of a Not So Good Thing

Guilty pleasureNew research shows that after just a few days of high-fat diets, our muscles get lazy and our memories get worse. Here’s how this was discovered:

Lab rats were assigned to one of two conditions: low-fat versus high-fat diets. Only four days into the experiment, the muscles of the rats in the high-fat condition became less able to use oxygen, making their hearts work harder and discouraging the rats to be physically active. That’s why most of us feel lazy and skip our workouts over the Holiday season.

But there is more. The lab rats in the high-fat condition made significantly more mistakes when it came to finding their way out of a maze they knew, showing that their memory was also weakened. In other words, eating too much fat impedes high physical energy and impairs cognitive abilities.

“It’s nothing short of a high-fat hangover,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal

Surviving the Holidays

If like me, you want to maintain some mental and physical vigor this Holiday season, clearly you can’t fall for all the opportunities others will encourage you to take on. So how can you find the delicate balance between your own needs and other people’s wants? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Use taste saturation. In The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler explains how “taste saturation” works. After eating the same thing for a while, our taste buds lose interest and so we stop eating. If another flavor is available, we may try it, and since having one bite is much more difficult than passing altogether, we end up grossly overeating. So plan accordingly. Love your mother’s sausage stuffing? Go for it, but then pass up on the chips.
  2. Big hug!Manage expectations. If Aunt Rita’s party is the third one this week, let her know ahead of time that you won’t be able to stay late. Knowing in advance will make it less of a shock when you say it’s time to go, and so you won’t be pressured to stay as late.
  3. Connect meaningfully. Research by Angela Duckworth shows that kids who are best able to resist the appeal of a marshmallow when asked to wait to eat it are the ones who focus on some other activity.  If your focus is on establishing a true connection with your loved ones or hearing a detailed story from someone’s early years, you will be distracting yourself away from food.  Chances are it will also be easier to leave at a reasonable time since you’ll have had a good chance to savor quality time. Better yet, you will be creating shared memories to cherish for the year to come.
  4. Work in some workouts. Flushing out some of the added alcohol and fat is essential, and some light cardio is the best way to do it. It may not be the time of year to beat all your previous records when you just feel like staying near the fireplace. However, staying active is key.
  5. Respect yourself. A lot of Holiday traditions are perpetuated because we fear others may be offended if they are broken. Meanwhile, everybody is secretly hoping for the year they vanish. If you find yourself in this situation, have the courage to bring it up and start the conversation about what is best given today’s new situation.

Lastly, if you’d like suggestions on how to manage your own party in a healthier way, see my Holiday article from last year: 10 Strategies for Moderate Indulgence.

There is an important connection between what we eat, how much we sleep, whether we work out, and how our brains perform. The link is direct and tough to ignore – unless of course, you’ve eaten so much fat and slept so little over the past few days that you already can’t think straight!

Hope my recommendations help you start 2010 full of Smarts and Stamina!

Happy, Healthy Holidays!



Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Kessler, D. (2009). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale.

Murray, A.J. Knight, N. S. Cochlin, L.E. et al (2009). Deterioration of physical performance and cognitive function in rats with short-term high-fat feeding. FASEB Journal. Doi:10.1096/fj.09-139691.

Sleep courtesy of Luis Barreto
Food courtesy of mahalle
Hug courtesy of kerryvaughan

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Senia 17 December 2009 - 10:28 am


I need this! I’ve caught an on-going cold… and have been trying to sleep more, consistently saying to myself, “Marie-Jo would tell you, Senia, that if you start sleeping more, continue to exercise, and eat healthy, you will feel healthier.”

And it’s so true.

When things fall out of control, it’s so much easier to have even more things fall out of control. Thanks for reminding us what to keep in control, and HOW.

A friend of mine tells this story: you’re making breakfast, and you drop one egg on the ground by accident and it breaks. Then suppose you take out another egg and drop it on purpose this time, and it breaks, and then you take another, and another. You wouldn’t do that. But then why, asks my friend, would you do it with your life? Say you’ve got your workouts off schedule, why then would you make things worse by eating more palatable (sweet, salty, fatty) foods and sleeping less. One egg is enough.

You’re reminding me of that. Merci!


Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 17 December 2009 - 11:34 am

Really sweet story, Senia! Thanks for sharing it! Let me try to see if I can attempt solving the problem.

I think I understand how it works when the first egg that drops is sleep: since sleep deprivation kills motivation even for little things, going to the gym seems like a big obstacle and so we avoid it. And it makes us want more sweet, salty and fatty foods, so nutrition quickly goes out the window too.

If nutrition is the first egg that drops, it’s also easy to see how we may not want to exercise. With lesser quality food, digestion is more difficult, which leaves lesser available energy for other activities. So we don’t move as much, and don’t spend quite as much energy during the day. Therefore we may not feel as tired at night, and stay up later.

Lastly, if exercise is our first cracked egg, then as just mentioned, we are not as tired at night and don’t go to bed in time. Given most of us get up a pre-determined hour (because of work, the kids, responsibilities, circadian rythms, etc), sleeping in is usually difficult. So going to bed later usually means less overall sleep. And less sleep means reduced serotonin (because it gets replenished while we sleep), which we try to replace through pleasurable food (the sweet, salty and fatty ones!).

For readers that are most well-versed in pp research, I have seen no research proving this, but a valuable hypothesis is that this is the link between self-regulation and carbohydrates. According to Baumeister, drinking sweet lemonade helps depleted people make a bigger effort on their next attempt at self-regulation. Maybe it’s because sweet lemonade helps replenish our serotonin levels? I don’t think participants in his studies weren’t given enough time between drinking the sweet lemonade and their next attempt at self-regulation for the serotonin levels to have actually risen from the sugar, but maybe their brains were already active producing serotonin because they knew they had drank the lemonade, much like Pavlov’s dogs were salivating after hearing the bell? Anyway, this is getting speculative, but would be interesting to see research on it. I actually emailed Baumeister a few months ago about this question, and he says he really can’t venture to answer it, but agrees that it would be worth investigating.

OK – enough said! Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Senia!


Jeff 19 December 2009 - 9:05 am


On Sleep: I’ve been experimenting with getting way more than the official standard 7-8 hours. Apparently, I’ve got Sleep Apnea or some kind of sleep disorder. Even after 11 hours asleep I wake up exhausted as if I never slept.

Thus the late night jam sessions with Maymin rhymes with Simon. Screwy sleep wrecks your productivity at work and you feel like crap. The reverse is true. I’d say sleep outranks good food because we know what sleep is and often we argue about what constitutes Good Food. People can understand very easily good sleep. Good Food is so tricky. Peanut butter is healthy/cancer in a jar. Insert any food that you can think of and wham you’ve got a heated argument.

At least with sleep, you can set some definite parameters. Usually the eyes are closed, snoring is optional, etc.

Great luck with your booklets.

Teresa 23 December 2009 - 8:07 am

Thank you for sharing these tips! It’s easy to forget about being mindful of our physical well-being when we are amidst all these busy sleepless nights, frantic party schedules and delicious holiday meals and treats. It’s sad but true, that we have to keep ourselves healthy and aware even during the holidays. It’s something we have to accept as a fact of life and start right now if we intend to live long and live more. 😀

Go to http://www.makemorelivemoregivemore.com to read a wonderful holiday tradition and other stories on how to live life more.


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