Exercise Can Help Combat Those Winter Blues

  •   December 7, 2020
  •  Nancy Littke, PT

As fall and winter arrive in Alberta, Albertan’s experience shorter daylight hours, colder temperatures, and frequent cloudy, grey skies causing many of us to live, work, and play indoors more often. This may cause a portion of the population to feel a little more tired, lethargic and less energetic during the winter. While it seems that many people are not affected by the winter blues, some Canadians experience a change in mood that can be very noticeable and possibly debilitating, affecting all aspects of their lives.1,2 If you feel like you become a completely different person depending on the season, you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD).1,2

What is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression that is cyclical in nature and appears only at certain times of the year. Most commonly SAD is experienced during the darker, colder winter months but a small percentage of people diagnosed with SAD experience depression in the summer months.1 It is estimated that 2-3% of Canadians have SAD with the disorder being responsible for up to 10% of all diagnoses of depression.1  An additional 15% of Canadians live with a milder type of seasonal depression each year, often called the winter blues.1

There are many theories as to what causes SAD. External factors such as shorter days and increased  time indoors are thought to play a significant role by affecting our circadian rhythm.1 Circadian rhythms are internal physical, behavioural and mental changes that follow a 24-hour cycle primarily in response to day and night.3  Changes in hours of sunlight and our sleep/wake cycle can affect our body’s circadian rhythm and may make one more susceptible to developing SAD.1,2

Who does SAD affect?

SAD can affect anyone but is more likely to be experienced by1,2,4

  • Adults between puberty and 50 years of age. The risk greatly declines after 50
  • Women appear to be two to nine times more likely to be diagnosed with SAD than men
  • People who live in more northern countries or cities as the difference in daylight hours between summer and winter months is much more extreme

There is also some evidence to suggest that there may be a genetic factor involved and that individuals with a family member who has SAD may be more susceptible to the condition.1,2

What are symptoms of SAD?

There are several symptoms that are commonly associated with a diagnosis of SAD. These can include some or all of the following:1,5

  • Sleeping a lot or feeling tired all the time
  • Having trouble getting a good night’s rest
  • Increasing appetite and a craving for carbohydrates leading to weight gain
  • Struggling to carry out normal daily tasks
  • Feeling sad, guilty, down, irritable or hopeless
  • Feeling more tense or stressed in the winter
  • Avoiding activities and/or people

Speak to your doctor if:

  • This describes how you feel during the winter but not in the summer
  • These symptoms are affecting your ability to function and enjoy your normal lifestyle1,2

There may be other causes for these feelings that need to be ruled out or treated.

What can I do to beat SAD?

If you are experiencing more serious symptoms of depression your doctor may prescribe medication and/or refer you for counselling to help you manage your mood fluctuations.1 Light therapy may also be recommended as it appears to provide substantial relief for 60-80% of people with SAD.1

However, there are also several things you can do on your own to help you combat SAD in addition to medical treatment options prescribed for moderate to severe symptoms, or to manage milder winter blues.

Self-help tips to ease the winter blues

  1. Add more planned physical activity to your daily routine
    1. Using a stationary bike or some other form of aerobic exercise has been shown to help in the treatment of depression.2
    2. Exercising in a brightly lit area or in conjunction with your light therapy may provide even more benefits.2
    3. Avoid exercising in the later evening as this may cause further disturbances with your sleep patterns.2
    4. Participate in activities you enjoy! Take those dance lessons or join a walking group.
  2. Spend more time outdoors during the day1
    1. Plan outdoor walks and activities especially around noon to enjoy as much natural light as possible.
    2. If the weather and distance permits walk to the store, work or mailbox or join a local walking group.
  3. Find ways to increase the amount of sunlight you are exposed to when indoors1
    1. Move your desk, favorite chair, or exercise space close to a large window.
    2. Make sure your curtains are open and there is nothing blocking the window to allow as much sunlight in as possible.
    3. Install skylights and lamps to bring light to more areas of your house.
  4. Embrace a healthy lifestyle
    1. Try to stick to a healthy diet and regular meal and snack schedule to keep your body well fueled.1
    2. Avoid giving in to the desire to take an afternoon nap. Keeping a regular daytime schedule will help manage your symptoms and encourage good sleep health.1
  5. Stay connected to friends and family.1 Although you may feel like hibernating, staying connected to friends and family and engaging in activities you enjoy have been found to reduce feelings of loneliness, sadness and other signs and symptoms of SAD or the winter blues.

Who can I turn to for help?

If you are experiencing symptoms that are affecting your ability to function normally you will want to consult with your physician to rule out any other causes of depression and determine if medical or pharmaceutical treatments are appropriate. A Registered Dietitian may be able to help you plan a healthy diet.

However, if you want to get started on an exercise or activity program, your physiotherapist can help design a program that is specifically suited to you and your lifestyle.

To find a physiotherapist in your area that can provide assistance click here.

  1. Canadian Mental Health Association: British Columbia Division. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Available at https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/seasonal-affective-disorder-2/
  2. Roecklein KA, Rohan KJ. Seasonal affective disorder: an overview and update. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2005;2(1):20-26. Available at  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004726/
  3. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Circadian Rhythms. Available at https://nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/Circadian-Rhythms.aspx#:~:text=Circadian%20rhythms%20are%20physical%2C%20mental%2C%20and%20behavioral%20changes,awake%20during%20the%20day.%20The%20Average%20Teen%20
  4. Benny Peiser (2009) Seasonal affective disorder and exercise treatment: a review, Biological Rhythm Research, 40:1, 85-97, DOI: 10.1080/09291010802067171
  5. Pinchasova BB, Shurgajaa AM, Grischina OV, Putilov AA. Mood and energy regulation in seasonal and non-seasonal depression before and after midday treatment with physical exercise or bright light. Psychiatry Research, Vol 94, Issue 1, 24 April 2000, Pages 29-42 https://doi-org.login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/10.1016/S0165-1781(00)00138-4