Editor’s note: Dana Santas, known as “Navigation makeris a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and the author of Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.
The shorter, darker days of winter present a mental health challenge for many people. For some, the seasonal shift can trigger a condition of clinical depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. Symptoms include low energy, lack of motivation, disturbed sleep, and feelings of hopelessness.
Whether you’re experiencing emotional grief or are proactively looking to avoid depression, with a little physical effort you can take advantage of your body’s natural ability to boost your mental health during the bleakest days of the season.
It’s no secret that regular physical activity is good for the body, reducing the risk of developing debilitating diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. But moving your body also provides profound benefits in terms of reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Better yet, it takes less effort than you might think to achieve the mental benefits. Brisk walking and other moderate activities can boost mental health as well as more rigorous exercise, according to the American Psychological Association.
Below, I’ve outlined four science-backed ways you can become more active to boost your mental health and ease the winter blues.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you are experiencing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, speak with your doctor for treatment advice and to rule out any other medical problems that could cause similar symptoms. Consult your doctor before starting any new forms of exercise.
When you’re feeling down, the thought of exercising can seem overwhelming, but simply putting one foot in front of the other can put you on the right path to beating the seasonal blues. Walking is one of the most beneficial aerobic exercises you can do. With a pair of supportive walking shoes and a little attention to proper form, you can start walking your way to feeling better in your body and mind.
Don’t let winter weather hinder your ability to walk. Hop on the treadmill, if you have access to one, or take the rounds at the local mall. Many malls open early to allow pedestrians in before stores open.
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According to research, walking outdoors can boost your mental health. If inclement weather is in the forecast, take him inside and tour a local mall.
Any amount of daily walking will help, so don’t think about how much or how often you should walk at first. Adhering to the World Health Organization’s guideline of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week provides maximum overall physical and mental health benefits, but studies have shown that even relatively small doses of activity provide significant mental health benefits. Just start taking the first step, knowing that you are moving in the right direction.
Going to the gym is not the only way to exercise. Think of some activities you enjoy in your free time that you may not have previously considered exercise.
Any activity that keeps you standing and moving constitutes physical activity. Do you like bowling, dancing, or even ax throwing? Set a weekly time to enjoy your active time regularly. Research has shown that just one hour per week of leisure exercise of any intensity reduces the incidence of depression in the future.
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Daily stretching exercises help prevent stiffness, improve flexibility and improve your mood.
If you don’t have any active hobbies, try new ones. Sign up for dance classes or other recreational fitness classes. You can find local classes and entertainment groups online via Facebook and community social apps like Meetup. If you are a parent or grandparent, engage in play with the children. Whether you’re in the living room, backyard or playground, join in the fun.
Exercise isn’t the only way to improve your mood. When you’re looking for something refreshing, consider lifting some weights. Several studies have shown that strength training, also called resistance training or weight training, significantly reduces symptoms of depression.
A 2018 study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, analyzed 33 clinical trials involving more than 1,800 people for the effects of resistance exercise on depression, and found that strength training “significantly reduced symptoms of depression” among participants. Furthermore, the study authors found that the benefits were not diminished regardless of health status, total prescribed volume of resistance training or levels of improvement in strength.
If you’re new to strength training, it’s important to choose the right weight and start slow. Consider trying a workout with just one dumbbell, focusing on combining a series of exercises that can work your entire body.
Move your body on your yoga mat
Rolling out your yoga mat can give you a much-needed boost on those dark winter days.
Historically, yoga practitioners have touted its mood-enhancing properties, and research agrees that there is a promising link between yoga practice and alleviating depression.
A 2023 randomized controlled clinical trial led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that adults with moderate to severe depression who participated in hot yoga sessions experienced a significantly greater reduction in depressive symptoms than those who did not.
Yoga classes abound at gyms, studios, and community centers. If you cannot or do not want to attend classes, you can easily practice yoga at home, following simple procedures available online.
Whatever form of exercise you choose, adding a little physical activity to your life will provide noticeable mood-boosting benefits to help you get through the seasonal slump.
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