When temperatures drop and days get shorter, your natural instinct may be to snuggle under a blanket indoors for most of the day. Cold weather shouldn’t be a reason to pack up your running shoes and workout clothes. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, exercise is crucial to maintaining your physical and mental well-being, and it can also help ensure you get a good night’s sleep every night. Lack of exercise is often linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and in the winter, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). When it’s cold, getting enough physical activity can be difficult, especially with gyms closed and statewide social distancing guidelines in force. Still, there are an array of things you can do to get your body moving so you’ll rest better and feel better.
Understanding Seasonal Affective Disorder in Winter
SAD is a major depressive disorder that affects approximately 6% of the population. It generally begins when the seasons change, and the days start to get shorter. Another 14% of the population has a lesser form of the disorder, commonly referred to as the winter blues.
SAD usually starts around the same time each year, typically in the fall, and can last as long as four to five months. Some individuals may even have symptoms that last well into the spring and summer months. Symptoms include:
- Feeling depressed for most of the day
- Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleep
- Feeling agitated throughout the day
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling sluggish or tired
Research has shown SAD may be caused by reduced levels of serotonin and increased levels of melatonin. Serotonin is the hormone responsible for stabilizing our mood and promoting feelings of well-being and happiness. This hormone is typically converted from the foods we eat by tryptophan, an amino acid, but it can also come from exercise, sunshine, and supplements. Melatonin responds to darkness by making us feel sleepy. Together serotonin and melatonin impact our body’s natural clock, or our circadian rhythms. People with SAD often have irregular circadian rhythms, which makes it harder for their bodies to adjust in the winter.
How Exercise Promotes Better Sleep
The good news is that exercise increases levels of serotonin, which in turn can increase your mood, decrease sleepiness, and put your body’s circadian rhythms back on track.
Exercise is one of the most common natural ways to improve the quality and duration of sleep. Studies have shown that people who get at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week see an improvement of up to 65% in sleep quality.
Tips to Stay Active This Winter
Instead of turning to the TV for entertainment this winter, keep your body moving to fight off the blues and get a more restful sleep. Whether you choose to exercise in small increments during the day or have one long session after dinner, all activities add up and contribute to your overall fitness.
Set a Goal
Aim for at least two and a half hours of exercise each week and exercise three to five days if possible. This equates to approximately 30 minutes to an hour of exercise each time. If you’ve been sedentary, it’s important to increase your activity gradually. Park further away from the grocery store door, take the stairs instead of using the elevator, and make a point of getting up from your desk every hour to stretch your legs and keep your muscles warm.
Exercising at Home
You don’t require any special equipment to get started on a simple exercise plan in your home. Do several sets of jumping jacks, sit-ups, and push-ups. Purchase a set of resistance bands or hand weights for increased resistance. You may also opt to purchase an exercise DVD and follow along or search free workouts on YouTube based on your level of fitness.
Dance Your Cares Away
Nothing boosts moods better than listening to some of your favorite tunes. Turn the speakers up, get the kids to join in and dance to the beat. Not only will you burn off some extra calories, but you might make yourself much happier in the process.
Consider Your Chores
Seasonal chores, such as shoveling snow, are definitely considered exercise if they get your heart pumping. Set a timer and see how much you can get done in a specific amount of time. Don’t forget to count your daily walks with the dog either. Many dog owners get at least 30 minutes of walking in each day while caring for their pets.
Find an Indoor Place to Walk
If you live in a climate that is too cold to exercise outside comfortably, find an indoor place to walk. Some local schools open their gym to the public for walking, or you can head to your local mall.
Meet your physical activity goals while helping others during the holidays. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen, help assemble gift baskets, assist with holiday food drives, or volunteer to help decorate your local community center. The important thing is to stay active.