How To Help Seasonal Affective Disorder with Exercise
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Brief Article Overview
Seasonal Affective Disorder is defined as recurrent bouts of depression, which are causally linked to seasonal changes during the winter months of the year.
Research strongly suggests that regular exercise is an accessible and effective treatment to help combat SAD.
Keeping consistent with an exercise routine during winter months requires more planning and discipline than usual, but doing so offers huge benefits for both physical and mental health.
As the clocks go back, the days get shorter, the temperature drops and the skies become grey, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) becomes a problem to contend with for a vast majority of the population, especially those further away from the equator who experience large shifts in daylight hours and temperature drops.
Don’t get us wrong, wanting to cuddle up on the sofa in the warmth with a bowl of soup in a state of semi-hibernation is somewhat expected and normal, but when this turns into a severe state of depression which interferes with your vitality, wellbeing, work and relationships, then it becomes a more serious issue to address. SAD can be debilitating for some people, in which case, it’s important to seek help from a qualified professional.
There are many different ways of combatting the symptoms of SAD such as light therapy, nutrition strategies, even wearing brighter clothes! In this article, however, we wanted to pay particular attention to the positive impact of regular exercise on this disorder, outline the research behind the claims and give you some practical guidance to keep you moving this winter!
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is characterised by recurrent bouts of depression that occur annually, during the winter months of the year (1). This can be experienced in people with apparently normal mental health, as well as those susceptible to depression in general. Common symptoms include:
- Very low energy
- Sleeping too much or real difficulty waking up
- Withdrawal from social interaction
- Feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
What Causes SAD?
Although the exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, the main theory is that a lack of sunlight affects the brain’s production of hormones including melatonin and serotonin, which are key hormones that impact mood, appetite and sleep. As well as this, changing daylight hours seem to interrupt the body’s circadian rhythm which can also impact the production of the aforementioned hormones (2).
Can Regular Exercise Help?
As well as light exposure (getting outside, or using light therapy boxes) (3), regular exercise is often prescribed both as a preventative and treatment for the symptoms of SAD. The scientific literature suggests that:
- Regular exercise is an effective way of improving depressive state via the calibration of circadian mechanisms, positive mood enhancement and improved hormonal regulation. (4).
- Physical exercise provides an effective and easily accessible treatment for those who suffer from SAD (5).
- Light exposure and exercise can independently improve SAD symptoms. Combining both at the same time gives you the best of both worlds (6).
How to Keep Exercising During the Winter Months
Stick to a schedule – Consistency relies on regularity. Set aside time within your weekly schedule, make it explicit, keep it regular and stick to it, no matter how motivated you feel. For example one hour on a Monday and Wednesday after work and Saturday before lunch.
Create a training plan – Having a clear and structured training plan helps with adherence. A good personal trainer will do this for you!
Don’t wait until you feel motivated – Many people get stuck in the “I’ll start tomorrow” or “I’ll wait until the right time” mindset. These moments are rare, especially during the winter months. There’s no time like the present, use today to organise exactly when, where and what your next fitness activity will be and get going.
Reduce the Intensity – High-intensity training is great but can act as a mental barrier when you’re not feeling very motivated. Remember, something is always better than nothing. If you’ve scheduled a HIIT session, but feel tired and lethargic, instead of skipping the session, do a session with less intensity and just get moving.
Come prepared – Prepare your gym clothes/equipment ahead of time, so that they’re readily and easily accessible (keep a dry clean gym outfit at work, have your trainers in your hallway or put your gym clothes in a special place in your bedroom).
Invest in winter training gear – If you’re training outdoors, invest in warm, waterproof, anti-slip clothing/equipment to make the experience more safe and enjoyable.
Involve others – Use fitness activities as an opportunity to engage with your friends, family, pets or kids.
Get an accountability partner – A workout buddy or personal trainer can keep you accountable over the winter months.
Go into a maintenance phase – Using an example goal of losing weight, instead of expecting to lose a lot of weight, try to not gain weight over the winter months. Ride these times out until the springtime motivation kicks in and you get progressing again!
SAD is a relatively common phenomenon during the winter months, especially in countries that experience drastic changes in daylight (7). Light exposure and regular exercise can independently alleviate the symptoms associated with SAD, and a combination of the two seems to elicit the most beneficial effects. Sticking to an exercise routine during these times is therefore incredibly important not only for your physical health but also for your mental health and wellbeing.
Creating a plan and engaging in regular, enjoyable, non-intimidating physical activity helps overcome the need for high levels of exercise motivation (which decreases with the bad weather). Ensuring you have the right clothing and equipment ready and available can mitigate the misery of the cold and wet weather. Including others (friends, family, kids, pets, personal trainers etc.) can keep you accountable and also increase your social interaction, which is an added benefit for your mental health and wellbeing!
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Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.