Health and Safety Tips for the Holidays

On Christmas Day three years ago, Fred Syerson announced that he was heading out to shovel the sidewalk. "My wife said, 'Don't you go out and shovel, you have a heart condition,' " he remembers. "Being a typical male, I didn't listen." He shoveled for a half-hour, came back inside—and had a heart attack 45 minutes later. Fortunately, his daughter, a nurse, was there and immediately called an ambulance. Syerson, alive and well at 76, learned his lesson. He now uses a snow-removal service. "If I get near a snow shovel, my wife hits me," he says.

'Tis the season to be jolly—but judicious. After all, there's no need to add to the more than 300,000 visits to U.S. emergency departments every day—and there's no need to overindulge and pile on extra pounds, either. NEWSWEEK looks at ways to stay mentally and physically healthy during the holidays.

SHOVELING SNOW: A white Christmas is beautiful, but potentially dangerous. Shoveling snow elevates blood pressure and heart rates. Shoveling for 10 minutes, averaging 12 lifts and throws per minute with an average weight of the shovel and wet snow of 16 pounds works out to nearly 2,000 pounds—the weight of a mid-sized car, says Barry Franklin, director of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Franklin, who became interested in the topic after two friends died from shoveling snow, published "Cardiac Demands of Heavy Snow Shoveling" in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1995. He and his Beaumont colleagues found that healthy-but-sedentary men in their 30s who shoveled snow for 10 minutes wound up with a heart rate of 173 beats per minute—the same maximal heart rate as an all-out effort during a medically supervised treadmill test.

In a later study that reviewed medical examiners' records in three counties in the weeks before, during and after two heavy snowfalls in Detroit, he and his colleagues found that of 271 people who experienced sudden cardiac death from atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, 36 (33 men and three women) were removing snow. To complicate matters, "that cold air you're breathing constricts those coronary arteries, which are about the size of cooked spaghetti," says Franklin. "You breathe that cold air, and it squeezes them down even more. It's a perfect storm."

Even using a snow blower increases heart rates and blood pressure. "Once you get in your 40s, and you have risk factors, you really ought to think twice. It's an extremely dangerous activity," says Franklin. Hire a service or a teenager. If you're going to shovel, push the snow or brush it with a broom and use your arms and legs (not just your arms). And wear layered clothing and a hat and gloves for temperature regulation. Losing body heat through an exposed head can put extra stress on the heart.

SKIING: Holiday warriors may be hitting the slopes for the first time in many months. "They just like to get to the top of the hill and do the double diamond like they did a year ago," says Walter Thompson, professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University. To get in shape, try to balance activities like yoga and leg- and butt-strengthening exercises, such as hopping on and off a foot-high bench. Walking up and down stairs is also good. People with heart conditions should get a physician's OK before tackling anything strenuous.

That includes skiing. "When you go to altitude, it's going to put a huge load on the heart because the oxygen tends to be lower at higher altitudes," says Dr. William O. Roberts, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and an avid skier himself. "You're going to get less oxygen per breath." And don't forget that new, high-speed chairlifts take you to the top of a hill in seven minutes instead of 25—which means you'll get tired faster. "A longer lunch isn't a bad idea when you get older," says Roberts. Wear a helmet, goggles and sunscreen (especially on kids). Make sure equipment fits properly and wear layered clothing that wicks away sweat. Don't overdress (it can lead to dehydration), and remember to drink plenty of water (not beer), says Miami University of Ohio exercise physiologist Jeffrey Potteiger. Skiers, who often don't realize they're sweating, "are having a couple of beers, thinking they're rehydrating, and they're really not," says Potteiger.

EXERCISING: Make it fun. Head outside with the kids. Walk, build a snowman, go sledding. "Walking up and down hills is good exercise, and really fun—as long as you don't hit a tree," says Roberts, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota. Live in Florida? Hit the pool. Even shopping is exercise—you're walking and carrying around packages. But remember to carry bags close to your body (it's easier on your back and shoulders), bend your elbow (it protects the joint from stress) and keep wrists straight (to decrease the stress to your wrist joint), says Seattle physical therapist Janet Peterson, a board member of the American Physical Therapy Association. She also reminds gift recipients to open boxes safely so they don't cut themselves with scissors.

EATING: To avoid eaters' remorse, be selective. "Don't waste your calories," says registered dietitian Elisa Zied, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and author of "So What Can I Eat?!" In other words, just say no to ordinary potato chips, which contain about 15 calories per chip. Plan ahead. "You'll have lots of family parties, lots of work parties, you're going on vacation, you're exposed to buffets on cruise ships and in hotels," says Zied. "Be mindful of the choices you're making." Control portion sizes. Instead of picking from communal snack bowls, fill one salad plate with 10 chips and guacamole—and don't reload it.

If you receive food gifts (cookie tins and the like), freeze them—or "regift," says Zied. "Give them away to your doorman, to your postman. If it's something you're not going to be able to control your intake of, give it away." Consider bringing healthy holiday treats, not cookies, to the office. After all, 71.4 percent of U.S. adults say they want to cut down on their fat consumption, according to the NPD Group's Diet Monitor. Exercise self-control. "The name of the game is self-restraint during the holidays in everything you do," says Richard Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, which helps corporations with employee-assistance and wellness programs. A ComPsych poll released this month, which asked employees about their eating style at work, found that 40 percent said they were "grazers" who eat small snacks all day long and 9 percent were "scavengers" who "sample candy off people's desks and eat treats left in break rooms." The presence of holiday snacks can worsen these habits, says Chaifetz.

DRINKING: Minimize liquid calories from eggnog and alcoholic beverages. A cup of eggnog contains about 340 calories; add 64 more for one ounce of rum. Consider a festive, nonalcoholic alternative like club soda with lemon-lime fruit slices, or Martinelli's sparkling cider.

Remember that alcohol can change the effects of prescription medications. "Any kind of depressants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain pills, when you mix them with alcohol, they really enhance the action," says pharmacist Bill Bailey of Medicine Shoppe pharmacies. Know that alcohol can irritate the gastrointestinal tract, too, says Lafayette, Ind., pharmacist Edward Langston, a physician and chair-elect of the American Medical Association's board of trustees. He also advises patients to look for alcohol warnings on labels and patient—information sheets. Be careful at office parties, too. About two-thirds of employers allow alcohol at holiday parties, says Chaifetz of ComPsych, but that doesn't mean you should indulge. Excessive alcohol can "derail a career real fast," he says.

DRIVING: Don't drink and drive is a no-brainer. But don't get behind the wheel when you're sleepy, either. Sixty percent of adult drivers (or about 168 million Americans) said they had driven while feeling drowsy in the past year, and more than a third said they had fallen asleep at the wheel, according to the National Sleep Foundation's 2005 Sleep in America Poll. Driver fatigue causes an estimated 100,000 police-reported crashes each year.

Among the National Sleep Foundation's signs that you should stop and rest: difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, daydreaming, missing exits or traffic signs, yawning repeatedly and drifting from your lane. Try to get enough sleep before your trip, arrange for a travel companion, and avoid alcohol and sedating medications. Caffeine can also increase alertness for several hours. If you're going on a nine-hour drive, get out of the car every two hours or so to wake yourself up—and to reduce the risk of blood clots from immobility.

RELAXING: This month the American Psychological Association released a new holiday stress survey that showed women feel more stressed than men, largely because of lack of time and money, commercialism and the pressure of gift-giving. Unfortunately, many women manage their stress in unhealthy ways. In the APA survey, 41 percent said they used food to deal with stress over the holidays, and 28 percent said they drank alcohol. "Set realistic expectations," says psychologist Russ Newman, executive director for professional practice for the American Psychological Association. And get other family members to "pitch in."

Try to find healthier ways to manage stress—like yoga or meditation. Often, stressors (money, family conflict, grief over the loss of a relative) "dovetail at this time of year," says Pauline Wallin, a Camp Hill, Pa., psychologist and author of "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-defeating Behavior." Fortunately, she says, "Dec. 25 is 24 hours, and you get through it, and it's on to the next thing."

GIFT-GIVING: To reduce stress, give kids fewer presents. Often they'd rather play with the box anyway. "When kids get so overwhelmed with tons and tons of gifts, they tend not to appreciate them that much," says Wallin. It's better to encourage "savoring and appreciation," she says. Instead of frantically running around to stores to buy gifts for the kids, play and cuddle with them instead. "What kind of memories do you want your kids to have 20 years from now?" says Wallin. "Nobody's ever told me, 'I never forgave my parents for not getting me x, y or z for Christmas.'"

BEING REALISTIC: "Have realistic expectations," says New York psychologist Carol Goldberg. "Things are a let down if you expected more than you got." (This reporter remembers when her husband gave her a KitchenAid mixer for Christmas when she hoped for an engagement ring. She now loves the mixer.) Set realistic expectations for travel, too. "Don't expect, 'I'm going to get to the airport, breeze through security, my plane is going to leave on time,'" says Goldberg.

REACHING OUT: Whether you're celebrating the holidays with your family or not, invite friends who might otherwise be alone. You'll feel better, and so will they, says Goldberg. Or volunteer at a soup kitchen or hospital program. "You are doing something positive," says Goldberg. For others—and for yourself.