SAD causes depression

How Exercise Can Help You Beat SAD

Do you suffer from the “winter blues”?

If so, you are not alone. Many people endure a funk during the late fall and winter seasons.  The technical term for this is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.  Fortunately, there are things you can do to beat SAD, including engaging in regular exercise.  Read on to learn more about exercise and SAD . . .

Winter can cause SAD

What is SAD?

SAD is essentially seasonal depression.  SAD can affect your mood, sleep, appetite, and energy levels. Sadly, this can take a toll on all aspects of your life from your relationships to work, school, and your sense of self-worth.

The further you live from the equator, the more likely you are to suffer from SAD.  This is because you receive far less winter daylight in latitudes greater than 30 degrees either north or south of the equator.  According to research, only 1 – 2% of the population (mostly women) suffers from the most extreme version of SAD. But, fully 10-20% of people still experience symptoms that affect their every day lives.

SAD causes depression

Signs and Symptoms of SAD

Most of the symptoms of SAD are consistent with general depression. The main difference lies in the fact that sufferers experience remission when the winter is over.

Common symptoms include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Appetite and weight changes
  • Anger, irritability and stress
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Poor sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of energy
  • Use of drugs or alcohol for comfort
  • Feelings of sadness and despair

As with clinical depression, the symptoms of SAD do very from person to person and often depend on your geographic location.

Causes of SAD

Science has not been able to pinpoint the exact cause of seasonal affective disorder.  But most experts believe the disorder is due to reduced daylight hours during the winter. The reduced exposure to sunlight that occurs in winter is thought to affect the body by disrupting some very important processes.

Circadian rhythms:  This is your body’s internal clock.  It responds to changes between light and dark to regulate everything from mood, appetite and sleep. During winter, the longer nights can disrupt your internal clock.

Melatonin production:  Your brain produces the hormone melatonin when it is dark to help you sleep.  Then, during the day,  sunlight triggers the brain to stop melatonin production so you feel awake and alert. However, during the winter, your body may produce too much melatonin causing drowsiness and low energy.

Serotonin production:  Reduced sunlight can lower your body’s production of serotonin. This neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Low serotonin levels may lead to depression.

SAD affects circadian rhythms

How Exercise Can Help

Regular exercise can help you beat SAD.  It is a powerful way to beat any kind of depression, including the seasonal variety.  If you get and stay moving, you can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good chemicals in your brain. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. Regular exercise can also improve sleep and increase your self-esteem.

Choose exercises that are continuous and rhythmic.

To get the most benefits, choose rhythmic exercise such as walking, running, weight training, swimming, martial arts, or dancing-where you move both your arms and legs at the same time.

Make room in your schedule for enough exercise

To get the most out of exercise, plan to workout for 30 to 60 minutes every day.  Keep in mind, this exercise time doesn’t have to be continuous. Even if you break it up into chunks (for instance, three 20 minute sessions), you will still benefit.

Exercise and SAD

Additional Steps You Can Take

Consider light therapy. Inexpensive light boxes are now available from many sources.  These devices A deliver light that up to ten times the intensity of normal domestic lighting. They are easy to use too.  Just sit about 12” away from it for 15 – 20 minutes each morning.

Practice self-care.  This can include things like regular massages or engaging in activities that normally give you joy.

Reduce stress in your life.   Many people find relief in gentle yoga, meditation or muscle relaxation classes.

If You Need Additional Help

If you are really struggling to beat the winter blues, we strongly advise you to contact your doctor.  And whatever the season, if you overwhelmed, in severe despair or suicidal, please know that there are people who want to help.  You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Learn more about Wellness Coaching at Cornerstone.

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