Happy hour playbook

I have decided to post a one-off blog post today about something that is a frequent concern around the holidays. Something that can hijack your fitness routine and give you a big setback if you let it. Happy hour!

It is the moment you dread (or maybe not). You have been working out pretty regularly and eating well. You are seeing the weight melt away and you are proud of your commitment and your success. That’s when it happens, somebody says “lets have a happy hour because [insert your reason here]!” You don’t want to be rude and skip the happy hour (sometimes that isn’t really even an option). You also don’t want to go and have no fun or be the wet blanket. Most of all, you don’t want a big fitness setback! So, you are going to need a strategy.

Let’s talk for a minute about why happy hours are so dangerous to your fitness goals. Let’s start with the drinking. Depending on your drink of choice, drinking just 2 craft beers per hour at a 3-hour event could result in more than 2000 calories. But, the drinks are just part of the story. Often, the drinks are accompanied by snacks like nachos, wings and other junk food. A couple of buffalo wings plus sharing an order of loaded nachos could add up to another 500-800 calories or more. So, in just 3 hours, you can mindlessly consume more than you average daily calorie target. The next excess calories are just the tip of the iceberg: there is also the fat, cholesterol, the slowing of your metabolism and other unhealthy gifts.

Let’s not let this happen! Let’s be more mindful and take some common sense steps to avoid the mindless calorie bomb. Here are a few strategies from my happy hour playbook that I use to try not to blow up my fitness goals when grabbing drinks with friends.

Strategy 1: if you want to win, you have to keep score!

The biggest enemy of fitness is mindlessly putting things into your mouth. Happy hours make this trap even easier to fall into. You are talking with friends, people around you are mindlessly ordering, there are tons of choices and your mind is elsewhere.

The trick is to pause and think and keep track. The easiest way to do this is to plan to log all of your food and drink selections in an app or other tracking tool. I recommend an app because it is possible to make choices based on nutrition facts. Just pausing to make a note of what you are consuming (or, even better, planning to order) is enough to put your brain in the moment and to help you make better choices.

Strategy 2: choose wisely!

It sounds obvious enough, but different drinks have different calorie contents. For example, the bigger name light beers total just over 100 calories for a 12-ounce bottle whereas a craft beer triple IPA may be double or triple that (tip: higher ABV usually equals higher calories). A slow-sipping glass of red wine is about 125 calories which is just about the same as that gone-in-an-instant shot of cinnamon whiskey (really, it isn’t a frat party!).

My approach is to start with one higher calorie drink and then move to lower calorie drinks. Also, I will gravitate towards drinks that I know I will consume more slowly. I am a bourbon fan, so a bourbon neat will be something that I absolutely will not drink quickly and is only about 100 calories. A rate of 100 calories per hour is very respectable for a happy hour.

Strategy 3: size matters!

Just because that light beer is lower calorie doesn’t mean you should order the 32 ounce bucket of it as your drink. Like anything else, portion sizes of drinks can quickly get out of control and lead to over-consumption of calories. Don’t let this happen to you!

Try to always default to the smallest size available for drinks. This may mean choosing the 12-ounce beer versus the 20-ounce big beer. This helps focus your brain on how much you are really drinking and makes over-consumption more difficult. In fact, at a bar where I am a regular, I will often order half beers instead of their standard pint. It sounds strange, but it works.

Strategy 4: a tall drink of water!

Like all other parts of your fitness routine, water is an important addition to any happy hour. Water helps hydrate you, it is a filler that helps control cravings and it is just healthy for you. So, hydrating yourself with lots of water while you are drinking is a critical part of your happy hour strategy.

When I am at a happy hour, I try to drink one glass of water for every alcoholic drink that I consume. By doing this, you slow your consumption of the high calorie drinks and keep yourself feeling full which will naturally limit your intake.

Strategy 5: snack smart!

Usually, drinking alcohol means snacking at the same time. You know how it goes, the tray of drinks arrives at your table and the group wants to order some appetizers for the table. These snacks often include things that are deep-fried, carb-heavy, covered in melted cheese and dipped in various high-calorie sauces. Everything about that sounds very dangerous to fitness goals. Consuming some kind of food while drinking really is a good idea, but it requires smart decisions like everything else in your fitness routine.

My rule (or guideline really because I tend to fail on this one) is to skip all happy hour foods that are fried, accompanied by chips or otherwise seem excessively unhealthy. Instead, look for vegetables or vegetarian friendly appetizers like fruit, salad or even steamed potstickers. If there you are looking for meat, look for something grilled like chicken satay or other skewers. Sometimes a half order of an entrée may be the best option

Happy hours are not inherently evil and can be lots of fun. They are a great opportunity for team building with your coworkers and enjoyment with friends. But, if not approached correctly, happy hours can result in mindlessly consuming a full day worth of calories in just a few hours. By applying a few common-sense strategies, happy hours can be both fun and fitness-safe.