Health / Expert Advice

Can Exercise Improve Seasonal Affective Disorder?

Working out may be the key to a happier winter season.

For some in warmer, sunnier climates, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) might be a foreign concept, but it’s legit—it can make the winter months a huge struggle. Less light and colder weather take a heavier toll on our friends that suffer from SAD, making completing daily tasks, such as working out, overwhelming.

We asked Dr. Marc L. Kalin, faculty member who specializes in psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, about SAD and some healthful ways to feel better.

What is SAD?

Seasonal Affective Disorder hits at the same time each year, typically starting in late fall and early winter. “During the winter months as the days get shorter, and thus [there is] less sunlight, many people have some symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. People can report feeling sluggish [and] more tired, [which can lead to] oversleeping and sometimes overeating,” says Dr. Kalin.

You can suffer from a few symptoms without actually having a diagnosed case of SAD (which is often common); clinical SAD is a form of depression. “Depression can present with any of the following symptoms: changes in sleep, lack of interest, feelings of guilt [and] worthlessness, loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, and sometimes thoughts of suicide; it tends to worsen during the winter months,” says Dr. Kalin.

With diagnosable SAD, these changes happen cyclically, for multiple years in a row. Meaning, if you regularly feel down and out in winters past, it might be time to see a professional—especially if the symptoms are affecting your everyday life.

How is SAD managed?

There are several things you can do to help manage Seasonal Affective Disorder, preferably under the guidance of a professional. “One of the best treatments you can do for SAD is light therapy,” says Dr. Kalin. Let the sun shine in your home and office. Get outside and get as much natural light as possible; if it’s just too cold, invest in some daylight simulation bulbs.

You have some other great tools at your fingertips, too—exercise and diet.

Can exercise really help with SAD?

Exercise is great for your mental health, so yes, it’s a great way to help manage SAD. Because exercising releases feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, it can be just as effective as medicine when treating mild depression (which is great news, especially for those of you who experience only some symptoms).

“Regular exercise is beneficial with depression and there is some evidence that it is also helpful for seasonal affective disorder. Being on a structured, regular schedule is very important to help with proper sleep hygiene,” says Dr. Kalin. “Whether some exercises are better than others is unclear; I think what’s more important [is] to do something daily and keep a routine.”

Thanks to SAD, you’ll probably feel like hibernating; however, scheduling 30 to 60 minutes a day to get moving will pay off in dividends—bonus points if you layer up and fit in some outdoor exercise.

While the specific type of exercise doesn’t seem to matter, Dr. Kalin did note that incorporating some meditation exercise, like yoga or tai chi, can be helpful.

What about my diet?

Diet is a part of a healthy lifestyle and plays a big part in your mental health. A big diet change is also one of the first signs of a problem. “If your weight has significantly changed ([you’ve] lost or gained weight), this is a warning sign that something medically may be going on, or depression is worsening,” says Dr. Kalin. “It’s also important to be mindful of what you put into your body, as certain foods may make you feel worse.”

Whole, fresh foods will be your best bet when it comes to an emotionally stable diet. Foods that contain a lot of refined sugar or a lot of fat are going to contribute to mood highs and lows, making you seem a lot more blue.

Try keeping track of what you eat for a while—notice what foods contribute to feeling sad or irritable. It’s probably best to avoid those foods during the winter months.

Effectively managing SAD is going to be more a of lifestyle change than anything. A wholesome diet and regular exercise is essential to help keep bad feelings at bay. That being said, some SAD sufferers need a little more help. If your symptoms are severe or affect your ability to function, and/or you have thoughts of suicide, contact a physician or professional immediately.

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