How to Kick Unhealthy Holiday Habits to the Curb

Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Brad Hart ('01, M.S.) has been a personal trainer for 27 years.

With the holiday season rearing its unhealthy little head, it’s easy to get caught up in all the food- and drink-centric festivities. Peppermint bark? Um, yes please. Another slice of pumpkin pie? Sounds delightful. A second helping of mashed potatoes? Pass ’em down.

Add to that the inclination to curl up on the couch with a queue full of holiday flicks, and it’s essentially farewell to fitness and nutrition, at least until New Year’s (day, not eve — I mean, champagne, right?)

But it doesn’t have to be that way — nor do you have to be perfect. The conversation about how to stay (or get) fit during the holidays is frequently broached by personal trainer Brad Hart (’01 M.S.). In his 27 years in the industry, Hart — who has a master’s degree in kinesiology from UNT — has advised clients how to make the right choices, even during the most tempting time of the year.

“The biggest part of being healthy is knowing yourself,” says Hart, a former competitive bodybuilder and marathon walker, and current soccer player, who works as a personal trainer at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas. “There was an interesting article I read recently about the new Applebee’s CEO, and he was discussing how he has turned around that company in the past year or so. He said the key is providing cheap comfort food and alcohol, because that’s what Americans want most. Knowing that, the simplest thing to do is to try to set yourself up for success. If you’re going to parties, don’t go there hungry; eat before you go. When you’re there, make the best possible selections you can.”

Here, Hart discusses what to consider when setting nutrition and fitness goals — and why it’s important to not wait until the new year rolls around to kick off a healthier lifestyle.

“Think about it this way,” he says. “If I make some changes now that I can carry into the new year, I can start to look better, feel better and have more energy even sooner.”

What is the best way to approach getting in shape?

Each generation is going to have different needs or desires. A recent graduate might want to do more intense activities like CrossFit, whereas someone in their 50s, 60s or 70s might be running into some joint issues, or their weight’s coming up, or they’re having bone mass challenges, and they can’t engage in those more high-impact activities.

It’s important to try to address every component of health and fitness. Do things that use as many body parts and muscles as possible, things where you are standing and your balance is challenged. Every person is going to have different requirements, so you have to tailor what you do to your particular needs.

If you do eat or drink too much over the holidays, are there ways you can compensate?

It’s really about trying to be chronically good with whatever you’re doing. Chronically exercising, chronically eating well — if I miss a day of exercise but I always work out, it’s not a big deal. If I know I’m going to have a party on Saturday, maybe I eat even better on Friday and Saturday leading up to that, and I adjust a little bit on Sunday. On the flip side, if you are chronically bad with your eating and working out, being good for one day isn’t going to make much of a difference.

How can people, especially those who are new to nutrition and fitness, set realistic goals for themselves?

Consider what you’re eating. Are you frequently indulging in French fries, white bread, candy, donuts? Or are you eating “healthy” foods, but have no portion control? Before you eat your food, look at it and ask yourself, “Is there a better choice? Do I really need this much?” Think about keeping a food journal.

If somebody is inactive, regardless of age, the simplest thing to do is just move. Go take a walk. Most phones have tracking devices on them for your steps, or you can buy a fitness tracker. There are any number of online videos you can do — look for some that are classified as beginner, are aerobic and low impact, and where they’re using hand weights. If you haven’t been active, you need to use a healthy amount of caution — you don’t just want to jump into an extreme activity. While they are great, your body has to be ready for that level of intensity. You do not want to have injuries or setbacks. There’s that saying: Exercise is good for everybody, but not every exercise is good for every body. It’s all about progression.

How can you tell if you’re doing something your body isn’t ready for?

Pain is always a good indicator. You have to be able to distinguish between a sore muscle and a tendon that doesn’t feel so good. If both sides of the body are somewhat tender, that’s probably a good thing. If it’s one side, that’s probably not such a good thing.

It’s common to hear that weight loss is 80 percent nutrition, 20 percent exercise. Do you think that’s accurate?

I don’t know that I could put a percentage on it. But if you look at the numbers for caloric expenditure, most of the calories we burn are just to stay alive. With exercise, you don’t burn quite as many calories as you would like to think. I was reading an article the other day about the best exercises to burn calories, and the top one was to jump rope. Based on your body weight, the article said you could burn calories at the rate of 1,000 per hour. When was the last time you jumped rope? How long did you do that for? About a minute? How did you feel after that minute? These are very intense things that you cannot do for an hour, so I thought that was very misleading.

Even if you don’t exercise, nutrition is absolutely vital. And there is so much information out there about nutrition. You have to find what works best for you. Look at programs that don’t exclude entire food groups and are livable. Take something like Weight Watchers. That’s a tremendous program. It’s real food, you can eat anything you want as long as you stay within your point value, and hopefully you’re making good selections within that point value. Try to find something that is as natural as possible. Not necessarily organic, but avoids additives.

What are the mental benefits of exercise?

There are beta endorphins released when you exercise, and you feel good when that happens. It’s referred to as the natural Prozac. Once you hit that, it’s great; that’s how a lot of people get addicted to exercise. But to do anything — take a walk, clear your mind — you can solve a lot of world problems.

What should you consider before hiring a personal trainer?

You should seek out someone who is certified. The certifications you’re looking for are generally going to be on the national level. It might be the National Strength and Conditioning Association, American College of Sports Medicine or National Academy of Sports Medicine. You have to be cautious of somebody who is selling you something. In all my years of personal training, I’ve never sold a single product.

Ideally, you should seek medical guidance and have clearance to do the activities you would like to do. From there, your trainer can build on what you want to accomplish.