Exercise and Seasonal Affective Disorder

For many people, when the days get shorter and the temperatures get colder, seasonal depression starts to kick in. Believed to affect as many as 20 percent of adults, seasonal depression, or the more severe Seasonal Affective Disorder, can lead to significant changes in mood, energy levels, and sleep and eating patterns. While for some people SAD is marked by what can only be described as a desire to “hibernate” until Spring, in others, it’s more severe, bringing on feelings of sadness, despair, and worthlessness that affect every aspect of their lives. 

While the hallmark of SAD is that it comes at the same time each year — and disappears when the weather changes — that doesn’t mean you have to suffer through the cold Winter months. In fact, SAD is treatable, with many people finding relief by using so-called “happy lights” that give them a boost of UV light they can’t get from the sun, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. However, two of the most effective treatments for SAD don’t require a doctor’s prescription: Exercise and sleep

How Exercise Helps SAD 

When it’s cold and blustery outside, your initial instinct might be to curl up on the couch under a blanket and have a Netflix binge. As comfortable and cozy as that might be, though, it’s not going to help you feel any better. Instead, getting some physical activity for 30-60 minutes is a better choice. With the technology on fitness equipment, you can still binge Netflix. Getting active, even when you can’t get outside, can help relieve the stress and anxiety that contribute to SAD, while also helping you feel better about yourself. 

In fact, research indicates that physical activity can actually be as effective as medication when it comes to reducing the symptoms of depression. One study even found that exercise can potentially reduce the symptoms of depression by as much as 74 percent. Researchers have different theories about why exercise is so effective for treating depression, but one of the most accepted ideas is that exercise increases the production of endorphins, the so-called happy hormones. That’s why we feel so much better after even a quick session on the elliptical. Other researchers suspect that exercise spurs feelings of accomplishment that can relieve depression symptoms, and that exercise provides a healthy distraction from the negative emotions.

Regardless of why exercise works, the fact is that most people simply feel better then they add some movement into their day. Rhythmic exercises that require you to move your whole body — running, walking, swimming, dancing, etc. — tend to be the most effective, but simply getting up and moving is often enough. Hop on that treadmill, put on some music and have a dance party in the kitchen, for instance, or do some light yoga stretches before bed. If you can, get outside for some fresh air and a bit of sunshine to boost the effect of your workout.

How Exercise improves your sleep 

Getting plenty of exercise not only helps improve your mood, it can also help improve your sleep. When you have SAD, your sleep patterns are often disrupted; you might find yourself oversleeping, or having trouble getting and staying asleep. 

Back to SAD, while depression and anxiety will affect your sleep patterns, for many people, not getting enough sunlight each day disrupts their sleep schedule. Everyone has a natural Circadian rhythm, which determines when they sleep and when they are awake. For most people, this means sleeping when it’s dark and being awake when it’s light. And since people with SAD tend to produce more of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, these changes can have a significant effect on natural sleep patterns, which in turn contribute to irritability, sadness, low mood, and fatigue. 

So where does exercise fit in? Not only does staying active and engaging in activities you enjoy help your mood, but regular exercise is proven to help support healthy sleep. Beyond getting some exercise, maintaining a regular sleep schedule is important to managing your SAD symptoms. Focus on getting to bed at the same time each night, and waking up at the same time. 

Practicing good sleep hygiene can also help you manage your symptoms and get enough sleep. This includes:

  • Avoiding alcohol or caffeine before bed.
  • Not going to bed hungry. Focusing on eating a healthy diet, and not overindulging in starchy “comfort foods” that can sap your energy and contribute to mood swings.
  • Keeping your room dark, quiet, and a bit cool.
  • Making your bed as welcoming and relaxing as possible, with clean, soft sheets and blankets. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing to bed.
  • Taking time for relaxation and winding down before bed, by reading, enjoying a calm hobby, or some gentle stretching. 

If your SAD symptoms are disrupting your life to the point where you aren’t participating in your normal exercise and activities, you continue to feel more depressed, or you have thoughts of self-harm or suicide, talk with your doctor right away. While many people can manage their symptoms through lifestyle changes like exercise and sleep, others may require more aggressive interventions. There is no need to suffer until Spring, and if you address your symptoms, you might even enjoy the Winter months

Have questions? Ask them in the comments below!

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