PT Classroom - Beating the Winter Blues (Seasonal Affective Disorder) ׀ by Jennifer Hill, MPT, CSCS


Do you ever feel like you got the “winter blues”? Do these months seem to drag on, whereas summer seems to fly by? Are you getting “cabin fever” and are missing the great outdoors? Do you feel like you have less energy and less motivation during the winter months? If so, you are not alone. During the winter months, no matter where you live in the world, the weather is cooler than other months. Some areas see simply cooler temperatures, whereas other areas feel drastic changes. In your area you may experience freezing cold temperatures, lots of rain or snow piling up outside, blistering cold winds, and little to no sunny days. During winter, due to the time change, there is also less daylight hours. Therefore, it feels as if you wake up, go to work, and then come home again, all in the dark. You may not see daylight very often. For all of these reasons, winter season can be a tough season to stay physically active, healthy and in good spirits. Connections between human mood, as well as energy levels, and the seasons are well-documented, even in healthy individuals.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a medical condition that affects millions of people every year. SAD is caused by a lack of serotonin in the body. The most common symptoms of SAD include extreme fatigue, oversleeping, not being able to get out of bed, overeating, carbohydrate cravings and weight gain. It can also be accompanied by the regular symptoms of depression, such as low mood, loss of interest in activities and trouble concentrating. The blue feeling experienced by SAD sufferers can usually be decreased or eliminated by exercise and increased outdoor activity, particularly on sunny days.

The weather outside greatly affects our activity level. Nice, sunny days seem to draw us out of the indoors, to enjoy the sun and fresh air. But when it is cloudy, 15 degrees, and snow is covering your sidewalk and yard, it may feel as though it is best to just stay inside your house. However, for your health, it is very important to find some form of physical activity. Physical exercise is critical to your overall health for multiple reasons. For physical health – exercise trains and conditions your muscular, skeletal, circulatory, respiratory systems. Basically, it makes your muscles, bones, heart and lungs stronger. It also helps to boost your immune system. With exercise, you stimulate the production of more white blood cells in your body. These are your internal defense system and help attack invasions from viruses and bacteria that make you sick. Physical activity also boosts your mood and makes you feel better, mentally. When you exercise a hormone called serotonin, is released in your body. This hormone helps to regulate your mood and your disposition. It also regulates your sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). Thus, helping you sleep better. With the time-changes and the daylight hours changing, it can affect your sleep patterns. Seratonin helps you to maintain a normalized sleep pattern and to get better quality (more REM) sleep. For all of these reasons, you will have more energy. While yes, exercise fatigues your muscles, right after you have exercised. But overall, you will feel more energized. When your body is stronger, when you are in a happier mood and when you have quality sleep, you will have more energy.

To summarize, physical activity during the winter months helps to keep you healthy in many ways – 1. builds stronger muscles, bones, heart and lungs; 2. boosts your immune system to fight the cold and flu seasons better; 3. helps you sleep better, so you have more energy and can concentrate better throughout the day; 4. boosts your mood and makes you feel happier.

There are many different ways you can still get exercise without getting cold, frostbite or windburn. To get outdoors and get some fresh air, it is easier than you may think. Nowadays, there is so much excellent winter clothing and accessories that keep you very comfortable outside, no matter how cold it is. The key is to keep wetness/moisture away from your body. This is important when you are outdoors in cooler temperatures. If you do not feel wet, you will stay warmer. So keeping the moisture from your sweat and from the snow or rain, away from your body, is the key to exercising outdoors. Manufacturers now make great wicking-fibers for t-shirts, socks, pants, hat, and underwear. You can find this material in almost any form clothing. This fabric is very lightweight, but keeps you toasty warm. It also pulls the sweat away from your body so that you do not feel wet when you sweat. Covering your head is a must. Up to 75% of your body heat is lost through your head. So if you cover your head and ears, you will not even feel the cold temperatures. A neck warmer or turtleneck will help keep your body warn against the wind. Outer gear is also very lightweight, but keeps you dry. A waterproof jacket, pants, shoes/boots, and gloves is all you need. Go to your sports store and find some undergear of wicking material, and some waterproof outergear. The clothing is also very lightweight, so you will be able to move around very easily and not feel bulky. Remember when you had to wear 5 layers of clothing underneath your thick winter coat and pants? You felt like the “Stay Puff Marshmallow Man” and could barely move? Then once you did get moving, you would be hot and sweaty. But it was too cold to take off any clothing, for fear of your wet t-shirt freezing. We have all experienced this – either as a child or an adult. Well, you will be amazed at the new outdoor clothes. They are very comfortable, lightweight, and not bulky, while keeping you just the right temperature while you exercise.

Should you choose to stay inside, that is alright. Your options are endless. There are thousands of very good exercise tapes you can purchase and perform in your own living room. All you need is a TV, DVD player/VCR, and a little bit of space to move around. You will have your own personal instructor of: yoga, Pilates, aerobics classes – step, jazz, kickboxing, dance, low/high impact, strengthening classes. Buy some second-hand or inexpensive dumbbells and an exercise mat or bench. Purchase an Exercise Ball for stretching and posture/core strengthening exercise. With just a little bit of inexpensive equipment, you can get a total-body workout. Your options are easy to find and bountiful.

Another option is to join a gym. Now is the time to meet new people, learn some new exercises, and stay healthy. At a health club, you have many choices for exercising: group aerobics classes; group biking (spinning) classes; exercise on cardio equipment like treadmills, stationary bikes, or elliptical machines; strength-training/weight machines; swimming pool; tennis courts; racquetball courts; basketball courts; personal training to help you make a routine. Check out the health clubs in your area and ask how to get a discounted membership fee. Your health and you are worth it!!

No matter where you workout, you must add a stretching routine. Stretching, along with deep breathing exercises alone may make you healthier and feel better. For great exercise and stretching ideas, be sure to check out’s Exercise Videos page. Then consult with your physical therapist or other health care professional, so he/she can tailor the exercise routine just for you.

The key is to schedule exercise into your day, just like any other appointment. Be realistic. Don’t start out trying to exercise for 60 minutes, 5 days a week. Build up gradually – start with 2-3 days, and get into the routine. Then add more time on other days. Build it into your day – Walk on your lunch hour for 15 minutes. Do some strength exercise in your office for 10 minutes. Stretch for 15 minutes while you are watching your favorite TV show at night. Every little bit of physical activity counts.

This is also a tough time of year to watch your weight and eat healthy foods. With all of the Holidays this time of year – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, Valentines Day, St Patrick’s Day – it seems as though there is a new reason to celebrate every other week. And this means more festively-decorated cookies, cakes, and cupcakes in the grocery store, more sweets and foods brought in to the office by your coworkers, more parties to attend that have huge buffets of high-fat/high-calorie foods. Also, candy is purchased in massive quantities for all of these holidays. You find your cupboards lined with left-over Halloween, Christmas and Valentines candy. And you find yourself munching on this as you watch TV at night. So the opportunity and temptation to eat non-healthy foods is constantly re-appearing. Your willpower is fighting a constant battle. When you eat fat-rich, high-calorie foods, it becomes a vicious cycle. These foods may make you feel better while you are eating them; however, they will make your blood sugars spike very high, and then drop very low. So then afterwards, you may feel more tired and sluggish and un-satisfied.

By following the old saying “Everything in Moderation”, you can fully enjoy the Holidays and not get bogged down with 10 extra pounds, leaving you feeling down in the dumps and sluggish. Take only one treat – not a plateful. Eat a healthy snack before you go to a Holiday party. That way, you won’t fill up too much on all the un-healthy foods.

Remember your healthy eating choices:
Fish that contain Omega 3 fatty acids
Fresh fruits and vegetables – cut up and ready to go
Low fat dairy – yogurt, string cheese (these come indivdually wrapped for easy carrying)
Green tea
If you have a sweet tooth, choose the “healthiest” choice: a couple pieces of dark chocolate (antioxidant-rich), licorice or jelly beans (low fat). Be aware of low-fat options – these are still high in calories, and can be empty calories of just refined sugars.

Stop the cycle of bad eating by removing it from your house after the Holiday is over. Get rid of those left-over bags of chocolate candies and peanut butter cups. Buy less for your parties or your kids, so that you don’t have left-overs hanging around. Gift it all away – make cute gift bags for your neighbor, coworkers, kids’ teachers. Maybe you have been received lots of nice, thoughtful gifts from your loved ones. If you have been gifted lots of “bad food” goodie baskets – donate it to a food pantry, or re-gift it right away to someone who doesn’t receive tons of gifts. Donate these goodies to a nursing home – lots of elderly do not have family or friends that give them gifts. It may just brighten the day to have festive gifts brought to the home for the residents and staff to enjoy. Just be sure to give it to the nursing staff or facility manager. You do not want to be giving food to someone who may be on a restricted diet or may have food allergies. It could be very dangerous to give the wrong food to an elderly individual; due to dementia or altered mental state, the elderly person may not be able to tell you accurately his/her diet restrictions. So be sure to ask the facility staff.

Vitamin D may also be important piece to proper health during winter.
Vitamin D is both a vitamin and a hormone. It’s a vitamin because your body cannot absorb calcium without it. It’s a hormone because your body manufactures it in response to your skins exposure to sunlight. Sources: there is very little Vitamin D found naturally in the foods we eat. The best sources are coldwater fish. In many countries and the United States, Vitamin D is added to milk and other foods like breakfast cereals and margarine, contributing to our daily intake. The best source is sunlight. Approximately 15 minutes of sunlight exposure gives a body the needed daily intake.

If you are currently having health problems and are receiving treatment from a physical therapist, the winter blues can impede your healing. So be sure to discuss this with your physical therapist. He/she will find ways for you to keep working on your home exercise program and keep your making gains in your recovery.

Whether you have SAD or just a case of “cabin fever”, there are lots of ways to beat those winter blues.

Last revised: October 6, 2008
by Jennifer Hill, MPT, CSCS

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