In northern latitudes, half of non-depressed people show some degree of symptoms related to winter blues and/or seasonal affective disorder. For these people, this can go beyond just lacking motivation to get to the gym; something that an organized schedule and personal trainer might not even be able to drag them out of. Given the severity and the rising rates of winter blues and SAD, its never been more important to maintain a healthy exercise and diet during the winter months. But before we shed some light as to some things you can do to fight this winter plague, we'll start with a brief overview.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and its more mild symptom partner, Winter Blues, are season-related forms of depressive symptoms that occur during winter months. For those non-believers, SAD was internationally recognized by the WHO in 1993 and the American Psychiatric Association in 1994. SAD and depressive symptoms are most commonly thought to be due to shortened daylight during winter months, along with climate (brrr cold), genetic vulnerability and social and cultural context of the season.
What are the symptoms? Symptoms of SAD include increased sleep and sleep need, increased appetite commonly craving carbs, weight gain, and decreased energy and fatigue - symptoms not unlike a hibernation. Unfortunately SAD is twice as common in women than in men and it's estimated that half of the general population show some kind of symptoms of SAD during winter (Lam and Levitan, 2000; Peiser, 2000).
How is it treated? There are pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments for SAD. Bright light therapy, where people sit in a front of a fluorescent light box for up to 30 minutes a day is a common treatment which works for ~80% of people with SAD. Light therapy increases serotonin and dopamine turnover production in the brain and promotes hormonal production, which improves mood (Benedetti et al., 2007). Antidepressants can also be prescribed to increase serotonin, but there can be greater side effects and actually fewer people respond to this form of medication rather than light treatment.
Both treatments indicate that the release of serotonin in the brain is the underlying mechanism of SAD in which concentrations of serotonin are lowest during winter months, and the rate of its production is directly related to the amount of sunlight and increases with luminosity. So what else do we know that increases serotonin? Exercise! Yet exercise as a therapeutic tool to tread SAD remains largely unexplored.
Exercise to treat SAD
Exercise as a treatment tool to SAD has been explored but largely remains inconclusive because studies have a hard time resolving the question of causality. Meaning studies may see that exercise relieves symptoms of SAD, but they don't know how. That being said, there's likely a bunch of different pieces at play ranging from neurological components (such as the release of endorphins), psychological factors (including distractions from negative stimuli and social interactions), to circadian rhythms.
That being said, there are several studies that have shown the large benefit of exercise to battle symptoms of winter blues and SAD:
How to workout your winter blues
As the winter approaches, it's important to remember that prevention is the best medicine. If you feel you may be likely to suffer from some symptoms of winter blues, now is the time to be proactive. Here are some of our tips to battle off winter blues with exercise:
It's also important to remember, that you are not alone. Half the population suffers some form of symptoms of winter blues and/or SAD. If you're one of them and can't find the motivation to try our tips above, its probably a good idea to see your doctor.
Benedetti et al. 2007. Chronotherapeutics in a psychiatric ward. Sleep Medical Review 11:509-522.
Koehler et al. 1993. Activity measurements in SAD. European Psychology 11:165.
Kurz et al. 1995. Early morning exercise (aerobic) reduce depression scores in "winter-depressed" women (SAD/S-SAD). SOC Light Treatment, Biological Rhythms.
Lam and Levitan. 2000. Pathophysiology of seasonal affective disorder: a review. Journal of Psychological Neuroscience. 25:469-480.
Partonen et al. 1998. Randomized trial of physical exercise alone or combined with bright light on mood and health-related quality of life. Psychological Medicine. 28:1359-1364.
Peiser, B. 2009. Seasonal affective disorder and exercise treatment: a review. Biological Rhythm Research 40.