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Treating Seasonal Affective Disorder with Exercise

By Careen Joscelyn RN, MSN, CPT, GFI




The days are getting shorter, darker, and colder. Then the holidays, optimism, and promise of a new year are over, leaving behind bills and days of bitter coldness. This is a popular time of year, especially for those of us living in the northeast, to experience feelings of sadness and depression termed Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.). What exactly is it? What causes it and is exercise a viable treatment for it?


What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?


According to the Mayo Clinic, S.A.D. typically starts in the fall and continues through the winter months, causing moodiness and sadness. The condition is often resolved by the commencement of the spring and summer months. However, in rare cases, S.A.D. can ensue in the spring and summer months.


What are the symptoms?


Symptoms of S.A.D. include the following:


  • Feeling sad most of the day and almost every day

  • Feelings of sluggishness

  • Decreased energy

  • Excessive sleepiness

  • Carbohydrate cravings with overeating and increased weight gain

  • Suicidal ideations

  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt

  • Difficulty concentrating


What causes S.A.D.?


Although a specific cause is unknown there are possible causes and risk factors that can contribute to acquiring S.A.D. The following have been identified by the Mayo Clinic:


  • Circadian rhythms disrupted by decreased sunlight during winter months

  • Reduced serotonin levels initiated by decreased sunlight

  • Melatonin, responsible for mood and sleep patterns, is affected by seasonal changes

  • Family history

  • Decreased Vitamin D levels

  • Personal history of depression or bipolar disorder

  • Residing in locations far from the Equator


How can we treat it?


Typical treatments for S.A.D. often include:


  • Phototherapy

  • Medications

  • Psychotherapy


However, what about exercise as a non-pharmacological intervention to help either prevent or mitigate the symptoms of S.A.D.?


Exercise and S.A.D.


According to Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), the following exercises have mood boosting effects and help alleviate the symptoms of depression caused by decreases in the neurotransmitters, dopamine, and serotonin:


  • Steady state cardio

  • Aerobics

  • Yoga

  • Tai chi

  • Meditation


Tips to help with S.A.D.


  • Try something new - If you have been exercising regularly, continue or increase activity levels. You can also vary your routine to try something new. Perhaps try a new fitness class, sign up for a spring race, such as a 5k, half-marathon, or marathon, so that you can train during the winter months. Focusing on a training plan can be distracting and the mood boost from running/walking can assist with symptoms.


  • Exercise routine - If you are new to fitness, reach out to a personal trainer that can create a fun customized plan to follow during the winter months. Make sure the exercise is enjoyable so that it becomes routine and you are willing to do it. If access is an issue, try a virtual trainer that provides and works with you from the comfort of your home. This is especially good for those that have a difficult time being outdoors this time of year, cannot drive, or prefer privacy when exercising.


  • Exercise outdoors - Exercising outdoors can help with circadian rhythms, which improves sleep. If you can tolerate exercising in the cold, make sure to dress appropriately for the elements, and bring a beverage to prevent dehydration. I noticed personally that exercising outside, even on darker days, does improve my mood.


  • Negative Exposure - With everything going on in the world and our personal lives, negativity can become overwhelming. Some of it is out of our control and some of it is a choice. Try minimizing the amount of negativity that you are exposed to. Whether it’s the news or social media, try to keep it to a minimum, viewing in small doses.


  • Positive People - Surround yourself with positive people. Winter can be a difficult time so having support is important. Immerse yourself in activities and people that can make you laugh, elevate you, and motivate you. If you enjoy running, try joining a local running league. You can find plenty of other group activities in your area, or start your own, through apps like Meetup. If getting out isn’t an option, there are also virtual meetups.


Summary


Seasonal Affective Disorder can be daunting during these long winter months, but starting or increasing exercise can help boost your mood and alleviate symptoms. Try the above tips and let me know what you think.


The goal of this article is to raise awareness about S.A.D. and does not replace medical advice from a physician. If you think you could have S.A.D., are having signs and symptoms of depression, and/or thoughts of suicide, please talk to your provider. If you are in a state of crisis, and require immediate help, call the emergency mental health hotline below.



References:




Shalchi, Homa. (2022, November 9). Ease Seasonal Affective Disorder with Exercise Routine. BCM.edu. https://www.bcm.edu/news/ease-seasonal-affective-disorder-with-exercise-routine








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2 Comments


Exercise truly helps with mood and emotional well-being! Thank you for the great insight and reminder about this.

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You’re welcome and I agree. It really helps my mood this time of year.

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