Avoiding health pitfalls — summer edition

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

The Good News

Want some good news? The good news is that it's summer, and summer is a time of year when it can be much easier to get on track with your health! Unlike the short, cold winter days that keep us cooped up inside, summer's longer daylight hours make it easier to be active in the sunshine and fresh air.

Gardening, grilling out, having a more relaxed schedule, vacationing, spending quality time with family and friends ... . All of these activities can be great for your health.

The Bad News

On the other hand, some of the things we associate with summer are far from healthy. Following are four aspects of summer that can sabotage our health goals (if we're not careful), as well as some healthier alternatives. 

1. Desserts and Beverages

love ice cream. I enjoy it any time of year, but there's something about the heat of summer that makes this cool treat even more appealing. Indulging in a little ice cream here and there isn't a big deal, but remember that a serving of ice cream is only 1/2 cup (despite many restaurant portions quadrupling that amount) and contains about 250 (mostly) empty calories. Refreshing beverages, such as soda, lemonade, or alcoholic beverages, can also rack up the empty calories (and extra pounds).

A healthy alternative is to make smoothies.

You can drink a good-sized portion, get fewer calories, and pack some great nutrition. Try blending frozen fruit (such as mixed berries, peaches, etc.), some almond milk or plain yogurt, a "hidden" vegetable for added health boost (cucumbers and spinach work well), and a drop or two of pure vanilla extract. If you have extra fresh fruit that needs to be used, throw it in, too! A splash of 100 percent fruit juice or a little honey can add sweetness, if needed. These make refreshing afternoon snacks on warm summer days. 

2. Cookouts

Grilling can be a great option for healthy cooking, but it depends on what you choose to grill, of course. Steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs can pack a lot of calories, unhealthy fat, and sodium.

Add some rich sides and desserts, as well as huge portion sizes, and this kind of meal can really set you back.

Lean protein such as chicken breast, pork tenderloin, salmon, and veggie burgers are healthier options. But if these aren't offered, just go for smaller portions of the other meats. The nice thing about summer is the abundance of fresh vegetables and fruit. Strive to cover half of your plate with vegetables, with lean meat and a healthy starch (such as potato, corn, brown rice, or whole-grain bread) in moderation.

Ideally fresh fruit would be dessert (and usually is for me) ... but I'm not going to lie, if there's a homemade dessert around, I'll be testing it out. It doesn't need to be a massive portion though.

A few bites, and I'm good. Again, you don't have to completely deprive yourself of anything. Just fill up on the healthy stuff and savor smaller portions of the less-healthy stuff without guilt. 

Moderation and a healthy attitude toward food are important for long-term success.

3. Vacationing

Vacations can be a great time for relaxation and improving your mental well-being. But they can also be a time of over-indulgence. The tendency can be to think, "I'm on vacation, so I'm going to eat and drink whatever I want, and not exercise." But I've found that this mentality leads to sluggishness and worse mood, making my vacation less enjoyable than it could be.

One way to avoid this is to look for lodging that offers a kitchenette and a gym. I find that my family spends less money on food and eats healthier when we buy a few groceries and prepare a light breakfast and lunch in the place we are staying. We typically save restaurants for dinner.

We also book places that offer a gym and swimming pool. My husband and I feel much better throughout the day if we are able to do some sort of physical activity in the morning. Since our kids are younger, one of us swims with the kids while the other one works out, then we switch. Our kids certainly don't mind, since they would be content to play in the hotel pool the whole time. :) 

4. Decreased sleep

With longer daylight hours, it's common for bedtimes to be pushed back. This is fine if you can get up later, but if your job or other obligations require you to get up early, you might not be getting enough sleep. In this case, changing your routine to wind down a bit earlier will of course help. Sleep deprivation is detrimental to your health for many reasons (learn more here). 

If you struggle with sleep, check out these tips for improving sleep quality. 

The Time Is Now!

Now is the time to take advantage of all that this season has to offer and get on track with your health. By creating healthy habits now, you can significantly improve your quality of life for years to come. It takes some intentional effort, but the rewards are undoubtedly worth it.

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.