10 ways to stay healthy during the holidays

Whether you're at the mall, at a party, or on a train or plane, you can stop yourself from getting sick and out of shape.
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The holidays are one time of the year when you really want to feel your best. But they're also a minefield of health woes, from cold and flu bugs to party hangovers.

Beyond getting the flu vaccine, there's a lot you can do to help your body weather the season. This is how to keep healthy -- and merry -- as you shop, travel, and celebrate.

--By Norine Dworkin-McDaniel, Health magazine

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Wipe away germs

Before you settle in for the flight (or train or bus ride), run disinfecting wipes over the armrests, the tray table and latch, the air vent, and your seatbelt buckle, and let air-dry. "Clean anything you might touch so you don't pick up germs that those who sat there before you left behind," says Amy Nichols, RN, director of infection control at University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Indeed, studies done at the University of Arizona in Tucson have turned up flu virus -- and even the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA -- on airline tray tables. "From what we can tell from our results, no one ever disinfects those things," adds environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD.

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Stay hydrated

Low humidity at high altitudes makes plane cabin air dry -- and our airways more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria, says Marc Leavey, MD, primary care physician at Lutherville Personal Physicians in Lutherville, Maryland.

Staying well-hydrated keeps those mucous membranes moist so they can better keep bugs out of our systems. Down 8 ounces of water for every hour you're in the air. Yes, that probably means using the plane's germy lavatory (take your wipes!), but colds and flu are such monsters that you're better off drinking than going dry.

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Cruise the aisle

Once that "fasten your seatbelt" sign goes off, be sure to get up and move around to prevent deep-vein thrombosis (DVT), the formation of blood clots in your legs that can result from sitting immobile for long periods. (DVT can be life-threatening if a clot breaks off and travels to the lungs.)

To avoid it, move around the cabin every 60 to 90 minutes. And if you tend to get clots, talk with your doctor about support hose.

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Watch your hands

Pack an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your purse, and use it regularly. "The germs on your hands are the single biggest threat to your health, any time of year," Dr. Leavey says.

That's because cold viruses tend to spread more from hand-to-mouth contact than through airborne droplets, making mall doors, escalator rails, elevator buttons, and ATM touch screens virus central.

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Stop for a rubdown

Try a chair at the massage kiosk or salon: In a study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a single Swedish massage session lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boosted several types of white blood cells, which protect the body against germs.

Only have 10 minutes to spare? Says study leader Mark Rapaport, MD: "I suspect some massage is better than none."

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Say no to treats

Don't fall into the "I deserve this treat!" trap. Yes, strolling around the mall is good exercise. That said, we tend to overestimate just how many calories we burn when we shop, says Cris Slentz, PhD, exercise physiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "At most you burn 150 calories an hour if you weigh 150 pounds, and that's a pretty generous estimate," he says.

Reality check: You'd have to walk for six hours to burn off a Cinnabon Classic Cinnamon Roll. Resist! Resist!

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Snack wisely

Speaking of Cinnabon, "packing healthy snacks in your bag helps you fight temptation," says New York City registered dietitian Ilyse Schapiro, RD. Her recommended take-alongs: a piece of fruit, low-fat string cheese, an ounce of nuts, a whole-wheat pita stuffed with turkey, low-fat Greek yogurt, or a granola bar (look for brands with about 150 calories, no more than 10 grams of sugar, and at least 3 grams of fiber).

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Stay in, rest up

If you run yourself ragged and don't get a good night's sleep, you risk getting ill just because you've worn down your body's defenses," Dr. Leavey says. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who slept at least eight hours nightly were about three times less likely to catch a cold than those who snoozed for less than seven.

You're not being a Grinch by skipping a party when you feel worn-down; you're being smart. Think of it as preventive medicine. "We know to wash our hands and drink lots of liquids. Reducing stress is another way to avoid getting ill," notes Chicago psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD.

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Prevent overeating

We'd never tell you to pass up tasty holiday fare, but if you're feeling bloated after too many nights of baked Brie, try this simple party trick: Pop gum in your mouth 15 minutes before hitting the buffet table. "Chewing gum tricks your brain into thinking you're eating, so you actually eat less," says clinical psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, author of Eating Mindfully.

Downing a mint in between servings can help, too: "It gives your body time to get a read on whether you are full or not," Albers says.

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