Feeling down during the long dark winter months is more common than most people think.
According to studies on both sides of the Atlantic, between 3% and 5% of people suffer from acute ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD). Symptoms include mild depression, lack of motivation and listlessness.
Of course, that figure does not include those people that feel a little down – though not badly enough to seek help. One recent YouGov study reported in The Independent found that 1 in 3 people felt some seasonal depressive effects.
The good news is that exercise has been proven to help you overcome those winter blues.
This page explores the reasons for this and outlines some common ways of getting started on the road to a fitter, healthier, happier you!
Exercise and Mood: Endorphins and Serotonin
There are two well studied ways in which exercise can lift your mood.
- Endorphins: A feeling of mild euphoria or happiness immediately after working out is caused by chemicals called ‘Endorphins’. These are associated with the ‘runners high’. This is a temporary effect, lasting 2 to 4 hours after completing your workout.
- Serotonin: Exercise also increases the amount of the neurotransmitter Serotonin. If you exercise regularly this can stay elevated. This brain chemical plays an important role in depression, with many antidepressants working by preventing Serotonin from being reabsorbed (which increases the amount in your brain).
Secondary Effects of Exercise on the Winter Blues
A common symptom of the winter blues is disrupted sleep. Exercise in any form has been proven to help with this. The knock-on effect is that you’ll wake up fresher and more motivated after working out.
Burning off excess fat and tuning up your body will naturally increase energy levels. This creates a ‘virtuous circle’. You’ll feel better and be more motivated to work out, eat heathy food and cut down on unhealthy habits like sugar, excessive alcohol and so on.
Depending on which type of fitness you choose, new friendships and socialising opportunities can also be found. Remember, every running group, gym class or climbing club has new people just like you.
Getting Started: The Vital Step
Once you make the decision to improve your mood and your body by getting fit, you need to decide which form of exercise is right for you.
The good news is that there are many different options. Trying out different formats and settling on the one you enjoy the most will have the biggest long-term effects. Fitness requires staying power, and people simply don’t continue forms of exercise they don’t enjoy!
I like to break the options into three broad categories:
- Joining a Gym
- Home Fitness Activities
- Non-Gym Group Activities
Joining a Gym
You’ll have a choice of big chains, local gyms and niche / boutique establishments these days. Some people join for group classes, others for the equipment. You can use the latest commercial cardio machines, lift weights or enjoy the services of a personal trainer.
If you have not exercised for a while or are out of shape, don’t let that put you off from joining a gym. You won’t be alone, and over time will meet many people just like you. I recommend checking out a few different places before you commit.
Home Fitness Activities
Working out at home is a great way to start banishing those winter blues before you make a bigger commitment. Home fitness can involve machines like treadmills, exercise bikes and cross-trainers. You can go down the strength training route with very little outlay with dumbbells – or invest in a complete home gym.
One you include body weight exercises, vibration plates and rowing machines – you’ll see the possibilities are huge.
Non-Gym Group Fitness Activities
There are enough groups doing different fitness activities to warrant a whole article of its own. Here I include everything from CrossFit to Yoga classes. Running is more and more popular, with all ability levels catered for. You can also try martial arts, climbing, rambling or Nordic walking.
Wrapping Up: Overcoming the Winter Blues
Once you feel the effects of fitness on your body and mood – you’ll wonder why you did not make this a regular part of your routine before.
Not only will working out increase the brain chemicals associated with a positive outlook, the secondary effects will work for you too. These include better sleep, reduced craving for unhealthy foods and more motivation to get things done.
Winter blues and SAD affect a lot of people these days. With exercise and healthy eating, you have the ability to minimize the effects – of even banish them for good.