12 surprising benefits of the holidays

Celebrating the holidays can also boost your health.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health
It's easy to get caught up in the chaos of the holiday season. Elaborate meals, gift exchanges, parties and shopping can be a hassle, but new research shows many aspects of preparing for and participating in holiday festivities have surprising, beneficial health effects. For example, singing Christmas and holiday songs, reminiscing about the good -old days and —even holiday shopping —can all boost health.

So while you're cooking, giving thanks and caroling this season, keep in mind these 12 ways in which you're also boosting your mental and physical health.
By Linda Melone for MSN Healthy Living
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Reminisce about past good times

... to boost self-esteem and increase empathy.
Remember the good old days? Waxing nostalgic about the past is shown to increase empathy, boost self-esteem and increase feelings of charity, according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Research (June 2012). People who become nostalgic around the holidays tend to excel at maintaining personal relationships, says Dr. Krystine Batcho, a professor and psychologist specializing in nostalgia at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. "Nostalgia reignites feelings of belonging and a deeper sense of who you are in relation to your past and your relationships with others. The nostalgic spirit of the holidays can inspire us to emphasize the positive feelings of love, compassion and forgiveness that make life rich and meaningful."
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Eat peppermint candy canes

... to soothe an upset stomach.
Peppermint is one of the healthiest holiday flavors with benefits that include antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and stomach-calming effects, says Dr. Shawn M. Talbott, a nutritionist and the author of The Secret of Vigor - How to Overcome Burnout, Restore Biochemical Balance, and Reclaim Your Natural Energy (Hunter House, 2012). "Even better than a candy cane, try a cup of peppermint tea, which creates an extraction of peppermint's volatile oils and polyphenols (antioxidants)." Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have shown that peppermint oils help prevent the inflammatory damage in tissues exposed to free radicals (molecules responsible for tissue damage). Scientists at the University of Melbourne in Australia found peppermint compounds powerful enough to fight serious gastrointestinal ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
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Go shopping

Shopaholics, rejoice! Whether you're shopping for others or for yourself, regular retail therapy may help you live longer. A study from Taiwan published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (Feb., 2011) showed that seniors who shopped frequently (nearly every day) had a 27 percent lower risk of death than the least-frequent shoppers. Ironically, men benefited the most. Researchers believe that shopping captured several different dimensions of well-being, health and security. Double up on the benefits by walking the mall early in the morning before the big rush, for an aerobic workout at the same time. "Walking helps control blood sugar, improves cardiovascular health, helps reduce bone loss and improves mental health," says Dr. Irv Rubenstein, an exercise physiologist and founder of Scientific Training and Exercise Prescription Specialists (S.T.E.P.S.), Nashville, Tenn.
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Sing holiday carols

... to lower blood pressure.
Can singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” bring down blood pressure? Absolutely, according to a study published in Arthritis Care and Research (March, 2011). In the study, a woman with hypertension was scheduled for surgery but her doctors postponed the surgery due to her high blood pressure. By singing, she was able to lower her blood pressure far enough to allow doctors to follow through with the surgery. The same could work for you, says Dr. Joseph Cardillo, a clinical psychologist and the author of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life (Sourcebooks Inc., 2012). If you're uncomfortable singing, however, it also works to listen to music alone or sing along. "Find what works for you, but typically songs with fewer than 100 beats per minute offer the most relaxing response," says Cardillo. Test yourself using a home blood pressure test. Listen to or sing along to your chosen song for at least 12 minutes or until you reach the calmness you desire, and take your BP before and after.
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Gather around the dinner table

... for healthier children.
If the only time your family gathers together for a meal is at the holiday season, you're not alone. More than 40 percent of the typical American food budget goes to eating out, according to research from Rutgers. Dining out regularly not only costs more than home-cooked meals, but it is also linked to poor food choices and bad health. On the other hand, children who eat frequently with the family tend to eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber and vitamins, according to researchers at Rutgers. The holidays may be a good time to introduce foods to kids as well. "More opportunities to try new foods can lead to a wider palate," says Dawn Weatherwax, a  sports nutritionist and the author of The Official Snack Guide for Beleaguered Sports Parents (WellCentered Books). "More variety leads to more vitamins, minerals and overall nutrients."
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Be grateful

... and experience greater life satisfaction
Giving thanks this holiday season may make others feel good and allow you to reap some wholesome benefits. In a study led by UC Davis professor Dr. Robert Emmons, one out of three groups of participants was asked to write down five things for which they were grateful. The second group tracked daily hassles and the third group listed five events that made an impression on them. Those who expressed gratitude generally felt better about their lives, were more optimistic about the future and reported fewer health problems than the participants in the other two groups. "We often feel embarrassed to say thank you, yet everybody likes and needs praise, so it's good to express gratitude," says Dr. Joseph Ferrari a professor in the department of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. Send a gratitude note for the gifts you receive this year – not an email thank you note, but a good, old-fashioned handwritten note. "It makes the note personal and shows you put a little effort into it," says Ferrari. 
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Sprinkle cinnamon on your hot chocolate

... to benefit from its anti-inflammatory and blood sugar controlling effects.
Few things go together like cinnamon and the holidays. Whether you bake with it or keep a bowl of cinnamon-scented potpourri near the fireplace, the aroma of cinnamon evokes comfort and warmth. Sprinkling cinnamon on your cookies or in your hot cocoa can also lower blood pressure, according to the Israel Diabetes Association. As one of the oldest spices, cinnamon has been used medicinally by ancient cultures around the world, says nutritionist Talbott. "Studies show that cinnamon helps lower blood pressure as well as control both cholesterol and blood sugar." A recent study from the International Journal of Preventive Medicine (Aug., 2012) showed a link between cinnamon and improvement of blood sugar levels. Add a spoonful of cinnamon to your morning oatmeal or dip a cinnamon stick into your hot cocoa for the aroma, flavor and health benefits.
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Volunteer at a soup kitchen

... to add years to your life.

Helping others less fortunate than you creates a win-win situation. When you volunteer at a soup kitchen, for example, you're not only helping a fellow human being, you may also be adding years to your own life, according to a study by the University of Michigan and University of Rochester Medical Center. Researchers evaluated data from a random sample of more than 10,000 Wisconsin high school students from their graduation in 1957 until 2011. Those who volunteered for the benefit of others (as opposed to doing so to feel better about themselves) were more likely to be alive than those who did not volunteer or those who volunteered for their own self-benefits: 4.3 percent versus  1.6 percent. "Doing a service also generates or enhances empathy for others," says James Youniss, research professor in the department of psychology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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Attend Christmas church services

... to lower blood pressure.
If you attend church once a year on Christmas, you may want to make it a regular habit. The more often you go, the lower your blood pressure becomes, according to a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Researchers found a clear link between time spent in church and lower blood pressure for both men and women over time. In fact, any faith can reap the health benefits of religion, according to a study from the University of Missouri (Aug., 2012). Spirituality, in general, links with health, particularly mental health, the researchers discovered. They attribute it to feeling a connectedness with the rest of the world and a reduced sense of self. Better mental health was found across all five of the world’s largest religions: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism.
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