Don’t be SAD this Winter: Fighting the “Winter Blues” with Movement and Exercise!

January 7, 2022

Abi Auten

It is officially winter!  And as the days get shorter and the nights get longer, many people find themselves in a bad mood or feeling in a funk of sorts. You might feel sad or blue around the winter holidays, or get into a serious slump after the fun holiday festivities have ended. Some people find themselves suffering from the “winter blues” year after year during the fall and winter months. So what is it about the darkening days that can get us down in the dumps? And what can be done about it?

Researchers have been studying the “winter blues” and a more severe type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, for years now. “Winter blues” is more of  a general term, rather than a medical diagnosis, and tends to clear up on it’s own over a short period of time. “Winter blues” are generally associated with a specific event, like the stress of the holidays or missing a loved one at a certain time of year. However, SAD is a clinical diagnosis that is said to be related to the shortening of daylight hours during the fall and winter months. SAD is more common in northern parts of the United States where the winter days last longer and there is more darkness than sunlight. Reduced sunlight can disrupt the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms, and can reduce the body’s natural levels of serotonin.

As with other forms of depression, SAD can lead to a gloomy outlook, feeling worthless, and irritable. Individuals suffering from SAD may lose interest in activities such as hobbies or spending time with friends. It is reported that SAD can look kind of like hibernation - people may become withdrawn, have low energy, oversleep, and crave carbohydrates. 

So what does exercise have to do with it? 

When you are experiencing the winter blues, exercise is probably the last thing that you want to do, but research shows that it can be one of the best things to do to improve your mood! 

We have all heard the benefits of regular exercise on physical health and fitness over and over again - improves heart health, improves lung health, can help manage and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, can assist in weight management, can strengthen bones and muscles, etc. But the benefits of regular exercise on mental health is something not everyone thinks about. 

Studies have shown that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication - but without the side-effects. A recent study done by the Harvard School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.

Exercise can be a powerful tool when fighting depression for several reasons; it promotes changes within the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and creating new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. Exercise also releases endorphins, or chemicals in the brain that can energize you and make you feel good. Lastly, exercise can also serve as a distraction from everyday life and stressors, this can allow you to find some time to break out of a cycle of negative thoughts that can often lead to feelings of depression. Other benefits of exercise can be;

  • Improved sleep patterns

  • Improved sense of control, feeling gratified when reaching goals or seeing improvements

  • Improved coping abilities to everyday and major stressors

  • Improved self-esteem

  • Opportunity to socialize and receive social support from others

  • Increased energy levels

  • Improved alertness and focus

  • Outlet for everyday frustrations - reduction in tension and stress

If regular exercise is not already a part of your routine, you might be wondering how much exercise you need to do to give your mental health a boost this New Year… Well, you don’t have to become a power-lifter or marathon runner to reap the benefits of exercise, any exercise is better than none! The good news is the exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous or take a long time to be effective. Studies show that low or moderate intensity exercise is enough to make a difference in terms of mood and thinking patterns.

Current ACSM and CDC guidelines recommend that all healthy adults ages 18-65 years should participate in moderate intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes on 5 days a week. If you aren’t there yet, that’s okay! The key is to commit to some moderate physical activity - however little - on most days. Then when physical activity becomes a habit, you can slowly increase time and intensity. Find activities in the gym that you enjoy and if you keep at it, the benefits of exercise will begin to pay off.

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