Tis the season for stress. The holidays are crazy enough, but add in year-end deadlines and sales goals, performance reviews and the news of yet another raise not given, and you can already feel your blood pressure rise. But there’s good news: You can still stay healthy, even when work is insane. It’ll just take a little extra effort.
“When stress takes over, often the first things to go are the ones we need the most — sleep, water, exercise, whole nutritious foods,” laments Brigitte Zeitlin, M.P.H, R.D., C.N.D. “And that can actually compound the issue, leaving you less equipped to handle the stress well.”
Here’s exactly what you can do to keep that from happening before work gets really crazy.
1. Plan Ahead
It’s simple, but true: “A lack of exercise or poor eating habits are often the result of bad planning,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., and author of Skinny Liver. So take some time Sunday afternoon to set yourself up for a healthful work week. You can “make healthy snacks ahead of time so they are ready to grab and go when you leave the door,” says Kirkpatrick, or “plan to cook at [least] three nights a week and prep any ingredients you’ll need. This will help you avoid a last-minute fast-food meal, or a sugary drink.”
2. Eat Often
It might seem counterintuitive, but Zeitlin says you should be eating every three to four hours to fuel up for those hectic days. “When we go longer than four hours without eating, our blood sugar [levels] drop and so do our energy levels,” she explains. “By making sure you are eating a meal or snack every three to four hours, you will ensure you get through those crazy days feeling more energized and focused, which is the name of the game.” When you snack, mix it up: Eat “a variety of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein” for the best fuel, she says.
3. Commit to Active Living
After a crazy work day, the last thing you want to do is hit the gym. But if you can’t make yourself go to spin class, Kirkpatrick encourages you to discover other ways you can be active throughout the day and get a much-needed energy boost. “Being active actually keeps your energy up; inactivity makes you feel lazy and sluggish,” says Kirkpatrick. “So move!”
For example, take the stairs rather than the elevator. Walk to get a drink at the water fountain rather than sip from the bottle on your desk. You can also “set your watch to remind you each hour to stand” or take a short walk, suggests Kirkpatrick.
4. Break Up With the Vending Machine
When you’re hungry and have very little time, the siren call of the vending machine can be strong. But not only is the vending machine filled with unhealthy snack choices — hello, greasy chips and sugary cookies! — those processed foods will only further sap you of your energy, warns Zeitlin. “Sugary items and refined starch will wreak havoc on your mood, with quick highs and then long lows,” she describes. “Instead, keep your energy stable by choosing whole grains, filling up on veggies and fruit and ditching the sweets for your own snacks like individual packets of nut butter with some whole grain crackers, or almonds and a banana, or try a cheese stick with an apple.”
5. Drink Up
We’re talking water, of course. And here’s a handy trick to know if it’s time to guzzle from your water bottle: “If it’s been a few hours since you last went to the bathroom, it’s been too long since you had some liquid,” says Kirkpatrick. “Dehydration can sometimes mask itself as hunger, so be [cognizant] — and consistent. Being dehydrated saps energy and may make you eat when you’re not actually hungry.” If you get easily bored with chugging water, consider purchasing a mix-in — one that’s free of artificial sweeteners — to give the water a little added flavor, or simply pop a cucumber or slice of fruit into your water bottle.
6. Get Some Fresh Air
When you’re overloaded with work, you may not be thinking about taking a break. But getting just five minutes of fresh air can calm you — alleviating stress, and giving you the energy you need to get back to work, says Zeitlin. Plus, “not only will the fresh air clear your head, but it will also get you up and moving, which you won’t get from staying still in your chair,” Zeitlin says. You can work in a short outdoor walk by grabbing a tea or, if you couldn’t pack your lunch, walking to pick it up — not ordering it to the office.
7. Say No to Screen Time
When you’re at work, you have to stare at your computer screen. But if you want to be healthy enough to stare at it again tomorrow, you’ll have to steer clear of screens at home — at least, as much as possible, Zeitlin says. “When you get home, stay off your phone,” she recommends. Instead, “unwind by talking to your partner or roommate, call a friend to catch up or read a book and then get to bed as soon as possible,” she says. “No computers, no email, no iPads, no staring at the cell phone screen. The sooner you can turn away from the bright lights, the sooner that your melatonin — the sleep hormone — will start kicking in, helping you to wind down and decompress the stresses of the day.”