How to beat the blues this winter

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It’s no secret that winter is one of the hardest months to keep your motivation to exercise and eat well strong. Colder nights, shorter days and the lure of the doona can throw your fitness routine out the window. But what if your doldrums are more than a case of the winter blues?

The research around Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is growing and with it, evidence-based recommendations on how to combat the SADs. Whether you’re simply feeling flat, have a serious case of ‘can’t be bothered’ or a clinical diagnosis of depression, here’s how to boost your mood.

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 

‘Seasonal Affective Disorder is far more than just a case of ‘the winter blues’,’ says Sarah McMahon, Psychologist at Bodymatters Australasia

‘We are talking about a full episode of major depression with all the hallmarks of that diagnosis. Depression is far more than simply feeling blue. The difference is not the extent to which someone is feeling sad but a combination of factors related to the duration of these feelings, other symptoms and the ability to function in daily life.’

Professor Greg Murray, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at Swinburne University, agrees that SAD is more than feeling a little down.  

‘The majority of people feel flat in winter time, but Seasonal Affective Disorder is a variant of diagnosable clinical depression. 

‘Depression comprises a set of symptoms that includes low mood, changes to sleep, appetite, concentration and thinking that is of significant duration and severity,’ he says. If symptoms last for more than two weeks and they’re significant enough to impair your normal life, then you could have depression.    

Seasonal Affective Disorder specifically refers to episodes of depression that tend to happen in winter.

Why do you get SAD in winter?

Why does SAD strike when the temperature drops? Is it more than our inner cavewoman wanting to hibernate? And should we lean in to the desire to sleep more, eat more and move less, or try to break out of the frosty funk?

‘There is more research that needs to be done on SAD, but the main theory is that reduced exposure to sunlight is the primary cause, with our bodies producing less melatonin and serotonin, affecting mood, sleep and appetite,’ says Dr Grant Blashki, Lead Clinical Advisor at Beyond Blue.  

‘Shorter periods of sunlight during winter can also disrupt your body clock.’

Murray notes that the condition is rare in Australia – around 0.3 per cent – and strikes women of child-bearing age more than men. A study of more than 150,000 participants published in the Journal of Affective Disorders showed women were more likely to suffer from SAD than men, but the reasons why remains unclear. Researchers noted SAD symptoms were independent of social or lifestyle factors, while other studies suggest oestrogen fluctuations could be a factor.

Gender and hormones aside, it’s no secret that winter weather adds another challenge to your waning fitness mojo – cold mornings, rainy skies and shorter days may mean your sneakers gather dust while you wait for your motivation to return. But there are simple strategies to improve your mood forecast. 

Signs of the SAD

Feeling more than the winter blues? Our experts note these common symptoms:

  • Low mood
  • Diminished interest or loss of pleasure in almost all activities 
  • Significant changes to weight or appetite
  • Sleep disturbance insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate; indecisiveness

‘If your low mood is persisting and you’re having trouble completing your normal tasks, you should consult your GP or health professional for a general check-up, and an assessment to see if something else could be causing the symptoms,’ cautions Blashki.

How to deal with the winter blues

Put strategies in place to give structure to your days and prioritise your health, even when your motivation plummets.

‘Be gentle with yourself and recognise that you’ll have some good and bad days,’ says Blashki. 

‘Try to keep a good routine: make a calendar for the week, start with some small manageable exercises for the day, stock up the pantry with healthy foods, tee up regular catch ups with friends or family, even by phone; and then switch off the technology and phones during the night to get some sleep.’

And reduce the demands on your willpower by putting measures in place to limit negative behaviour and promote the positive, says Murray. Don’t have the snacks in the fridge that you’re powerless to resist. Prep your workout gear the night before.

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‘It doesn’t take any motivation to lay your clothes out the night before, but it makes a huge difference to your behaviour the next morning,’ he notes.

Can light help a case of SADs?

The first line treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder is bright light, says Murray. 

‘Sit in front of a light box or wear light emitting glasses, preferably early in the morning,’ he says. 

Unfortunately, sitting under the kitchen fluorescent drinking a cuppa won’t cut it. ‘Most artificial light isn’t sufficiently intense,’ he says. ‘Our eyes are sensitive to light and making adjustments all the time. So while we might be sitting in a bright kitchen thinking it’s comparable to daylight, it’s not. Your eyes have adjusted to the environment.’

But you don’t need to wait for the bright sun of summer to get your hit. ‘In most parts of Australia, outdoor light on a grey overcast morning is sufficient to treat the symptoms of winter depression.’ 

Commit to your routine to beat SAD

Whether you’re arranging a workout with a friend, taking the dog for a run or signing up for a fitness challenge, the very act of making a commitment can see you through a case of the ‘don’t wannas’. 

‘We need to ask ourselves, ‘Why does it matter to me that I can’t go to yoga or the gym?’’ Murray says. ‘The answer is probably multifaceted.

‘Unpack what it is about that activity that’s important to you. It might be four different things – exercise keeps me feeling strong, it gets me out of the house, or the instructor is great and I’m supporting a small business in my area.’

Problem solve solutions individually, rather than waiting for summer to come back around. And if you’re an athlete with a competitive schedule looming but can’t summon the energy? 

‘For athletes, regular exercise and their training schedule are such an integral part of their wellbeing. It can be pretty stressful when their motivation and exercise routine get disrupted,’ says Blashki. 

He suggests being kind to yourself first, before building up to a realistic training schedule, given the time, resources and energy you have available.  

‘Training with others can sometimes help to improve motivation’, so hook up with a trainer or friend to smash those goals. 

If your energy remains low, Blashki cautions, ‘It’s important to get a check-up from the GP and a basic blood test to make sure there is nothing else causing the fatigue.’

Train outdoors 

Rug up and take your sweat sesh outside to maximise your mood boost. You’ll get the double whammy of natural light and the post-workout endorphins. 

 ‘Many studies have shown the benefits of exercise for depressive disorders in general. The current recommendations are aerobic exercise (for example walking or running) for at least 30 minutes, three to four times per week, at mild to moderate intensity is effective at reducing depression,’ says Blashki.   

McMahon agrees: ‘Aerobic exercise is typically best as it increases serotonin levels. Spend as much time outside as possible, including exercising outside, given light also increases serotonin levels.’

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People that exercised several hours every week were less likely to be diagnosed with a new episode of depression, even if they had high ‘genetic risk’ for the disorder, found researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital. In their 2019 study, participants decreased their likelihood of future depression by 17 per cent for each additional four-hour block of activity per week. 

‘A few studies have looked at seasonal affective disorder and they suggest that exercise can be effective with or without light therapy,’ notes Blashki. ‘But if you’re going to smash a sesh, why not get a dose of Vitamin D, too?’

Get at least eight hours of sleep 

SAD aside, ‘we do know that the average person wants to sleep more in winter,’ says Murray. So do you succumb to the Sunday sleep-in? 

‘One of the really important things is routine,’ he says. ‘Important daily activities happening at about the same time across days. The most important example of this is getting up at the same time each day. Your body clock needs to be ‘synchronised’ each day.’

Murray likens your body clock to a wind-up watch: ‘Your body clock gets wound up each day by behaviours, especially light exposure, at about the same time each day – seven days a week, not five.

‘Making sure you find a routine and do it seven days a week is particularly important.’

Tips to battle the blues and stay motivated

Get some pep back in your step regardless of the weather forecast, with these tips from our pros:

  • Exercise – choose something you love, and do it frequently and outside if you can.
  • Get bright light daily – especially early in the morning.
  • Hype up your sleep hygiene – regular sleep patterns, minimal screen time in the evenings and no working in bed!
  • Don’t rely on motivation – willpower is wobbly. Planning is powerful. 
  • Get support – talk it out with friends or family, your GP or therapist, or the Beyond Blue forums for peer-to-peer support. 

Read more tips for staying motivated to train are here

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About Courtney Robinson 6 Articles
Courtney is a features writer and content creator, with a background in publishing, brand management and digital strategy. With qualifications in communications, fitness and nutrition, she combines her passions for words and weight training, to explore the latest in health and wellness.