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The Medical Minute: Health tips for a jolly old elf (a holiday survival guide for the rest of us)

Think you have a hard time staying healthy during the holidays?

Try sliding down every chimney on every house in the whole world. Do it all in one night ― a frigid, winter night at that ― carrying a sack full of toys and coal while riding a mountain of pressure (better hope those “naughty/nice” spreadsheets have been thoroughly proofread). And your only refreshments are millions of cookies and gallons of milk your followers insist on putting out for you, which doesn’t do much to help what doctors tell you is a worsening weight problem.

You and your creatures might not do much stirring on Friday, Dec. 24, but for the big guy with the sleigh it’s anything but a peaceful yuletide.

In this Medical Minute, Penn State Health experts turn the tables on Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick and offer him a gift: tips on how he might stay healthy on his annual big night.

For everyone else, think of it as a guide for the holiday season. How can you avoid the stress, unhealthy diet and frostbite this year?

Santa risk No. 1: Bowl full of jelly + cold weather = heart concerns

OK, it’ll be cold. Big deal. Santa is covered. He’s famous the world over for his red parka and hat. Cold weather comes with the territory.

But hard work in in low temps could spell trouble for someone who might be less than health conscious (Think bowl full of jelly).

“Cold weather will cause the body to constrict blood vessels to maintain warmth, which can then raise blood pressure and the risk for heart attack,” said Dr. Chad Zack, a cardiologist at Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute.

It’s best not to overdo winter tasks, such as shoveling snow, carrying firewood, or, say, lugging piles upon piles of presents to every child everywhere. Taking breaks is important.

“Pay attention to the classic signs of a heart attack ― chest pain; shortness of breath; pain that radiates to the jaw, arm or back; nausea or cold sweats ― and stop if you experience any of them,” Zack said. “If they persist, call 911.”

And plan now to get in better shape for next winter’s weather by getting 30 minutes of exercise five days a week when spring finally arrives.

“Even walking briskly is good exercise ― you want to get slightly out of breath but not uncomfortable,” Zack said. “Getting in shape is good for improving health and longevity all year long.”

Easier said than done, when every house offers a plate of delicious cookies. But more on that later.

Santa risk No. 2: Winter weather perils

Santa rarely delivers gifts from an Oldsmobile. The odds of a flying sleigh and reindeer becoming stuck in a snowdrift are minimal.

But you never know with winter conditions, and Dr. Jeffrey Lubin, vice chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, suggests maintaining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s emergency kit. It includes things like blankets, sand or kitty litter to help with traction and a charged cell phone to call for help. Keep it in your sleigh, er, car.

While crossing those rooftops, Santa should keep his cap and mittens firmly in place. Covering your extremities protects them from frostbite.

Santa should also be sure to keep dry. “Wearing wet clothes wicks heat away from your body,” Lubin said. “One of the first things you should do when you get inside is change out of those wet clothes so you can dry off.”

Hot drinks can provide Santa some inner warmth. “One thing that doesn’t work is the intake of alcohol,” Lubin said. “Even though you feel that warm sensation on the inside, you’re actually dehydrating your body and it may make you more prone to getting ill.”

So instead of milk and cookies, consider putting out a cup of coffee and a towel for Santa this year. But keep your bourbon to yourself.

Santa risk No. 3: Holiday stress on overdrive

By late in the day on Saturday, Dec. 25, Santa will be ready for a vacation. You might feel the same way. Family logistics, shopping, travel … trying to get a few moments of holiday peace can cause a lot of stress.

Dr. Julie Radico, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Health, emphasizes a positive attitude. Santa should focus what he can do, not on how big the mountain of toys he must deliver is.

“If you spend a lot of time on unproductive worries, we tend to get stuck and feel helpless, which creates more stress,” she said. “Consider instead if there is something you can do about it or a part of it that you can control and make better, and then put that on your to-do list.”

Radico tells her patients to practice self-care – doing things to stay energized and relaxed. That might include engaging in a favorite hobby, getting a massage or spending time with people you care about. “Your mental health is a key component of your life,” she said.

Santa risk No. 4: And of course … cookies

Which brings us to the cookies and milk. Heather Tressler, a registered dietitian at the Penn State Health Celiac Clinic, suggests they shouldn’t add to holiday stress.

Give yourself permission to eat everything. “When we restrict ourselves we feel deprived and that can, in turn, start the cycle of craving and bingeing,” she said. “When you simply allow yourself to enjoy the foods you love, you take the guilt away.”

Janelle Fallon, a clinical nutrition manager at Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, suggests smaller plates.

“Grab what you’d like and eat away from the food being served and really focus on enjoying the food or beverage while paying attention to hunger cues,” she said. “Stop when you are full, and don’t feel pressured to finish the entire plate.”

Eat lean protein and fruits and vegetables instead of fasting. And both dietitians suggest not neglecting exercise. Santa should be sure to go for a walk, dance or do something fun.

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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