…..Keep Away Those Winter Blues
These winter months have many of us reaching for the holiday brochures. Winter Sun is now huge business for the travel trade with millions of us searching for the sunshine at this time of year. Rain, wind, cloudy weather, cold and lack of sunshine are all normal features of a British winter that many of us find utterly depressing. In fact some of us show a very different pattern of behaviour when the seasons change. For example:
- Do you find you have less energy than in summer?
- Do you find it harder to get out of bed in the morning?
- Do you sleep more but still wake up feeling tired?
- Do you feel more stressed?
- Do you feel more depressed?
- Do you put on weight?
- Do you suffer more from pre-menstrual tension?
- Do you find it more difficult to get enthusiastic about things?
If you answer ‘Yes’ to more than two of the above questions, you may be one of the many who are affected, to a greater or lesser extent, by a condition termed ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ (SAD). In the USA, it is estimated that over 35 million people suffer in one way or another from SAD – or ‘winter blues’. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t appear to trouble people living in Florida and the Southern States as much as those living in New Hampshire and the northern Great Lakes States. And in Europe, it’s a far bigger problem for those living in Norway and Sweden than for those in Mediterranean countries. The studies also show that women are around 3-4 times as likely to suffer from ’winter blues’ as men. The problem seem to affect 20-40 year olds in particular, with reports of lethargy, fatigue, ravenous appetite, weight gain, carbohydrate craving, withdrawal from relationships, inability to concentrate or focus, problems at work, anxiety and despair during the winter months.
‘Winter blues’ or SAD is thought to be brought on by lack of daylight. In summer, the days are long and the light is generally bright. But in a British winter, the days are short and the light is generally of poor quality. It is only during the last decade or so that scientists have really begun to understand the importance of natural daylight to out health and vitality.
Daylight enters our eyes (even when our eyes are closed) and sends signals to the pineal gland, located at the centre of the brain. Bright light causes a whole series of physiological responses and changes in the body. The morning sun wakes us up, whereas at night-time the darkness stimulates production of the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel drowsy and sleepy. During long summer days, more endorphins and serotonin are produced in the brain – these are neurotransmitters which make us feel better, more energetic, less depressed and less moody.
Being outdoors in daylight also encourages the production of more Vitamin D, which is manufactured in the skin as a result of exposure to daylight. This promotes better absorption of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, which strengthen our bones & teeth and are essential in combating arthritis, osteoporosis and the negative effects of the menopause. In spring, when the days begin to lengthen, our sex hormones take a surge forward. Indeed the peak time for conception is late spring and early summer. A young man’s fancy….and all that!
The Ancient Greeks recognised the importance of daylight to health and fitness by training outdoors naked, thus exposing all of their muscles to gain a beneficial effect from the sunlight! The Victorians had their ‘morning constitutional walk’, whilst from the turn of the century up to the Second World War, sanatoriums were built to enable patients to sit outside and receive daily exposures to sunlight as a part of the treatment.
Interestingly, a recent report from the USA found that heart patients whose beds were on the sunny-side of the ward recovered faster than other patients! Was this just coincidence?
Some current experts are now suggesting that fitness training outdoors is more beneficial than an indoor workout. When the skin is exposed to daylight the capacity of the blood for transporting oxygen goes up, more oxygen and nutrients are supplied to the tissues and muscles become better toned. Some research also suggests that we are better able to fat-burn when we exercise outdoors in natural daylight. Several offices and gymnasia now have full-spectrum lighting and whilst there have been some problems, most report good effects.
Many of us lead lifestyles where as much as 90% of our time is spent indoors, away from natural daylight. We travel to work in a car, bus or train, work indoors, lunch indoors, return home and spend our leisure time indoors. Why is it that shift workers have more health problems than the rest of us? More stress, less exercise, more smokers – or could it be light-deficiency?
Curing or keeping away those winter blues can be helped greatly by daily outdoor physical activity and increasing the amount of light in the home and working environments:
- Get as much daylight as possible through windows – try trimming bushes that are in front of windows, paint walls with light, bright colours, install brighter light bulbs, etc.
- Try to sit for periods of time at work or at home in front of sunlit windows. Maybe rearrange your workspace to be near a window – or make sure the lighting is good in your work area.
- Exercise daily, preferably outdoors – for example, a daily 20-minute walk around the block at lunchtime. If indoors, exercise in brightly lit environments.
- Try to stay on a regular sleep/wake cycle.
- If you are able, enjoy a winter holiday in a warm, sunny climate – but take care and use a good sunscreen!
Regular exercise is a great way to helps keep away those winter blues, whether outdoors or indoors. The gyms know that attendance will increase during the dark, winter months and now tend to offer a wide range of courses and activities.
So, keep active – and don’t be a SAD victim!
Beating the Winter Blues
As the cold weather and dark nights creep in, motivation is harder to find and it’s easy to let those fitness regimes slip.
There are many reasons to stay active over the winter months. Regular activity raises serotonin levels, helping to reduce common feelings of depression associated with the darker months. Also, research shows that you’ll have less chance of catching the winter lurgies! One study suggests that exercising regularly and moderately can halve your risk of sore throats and those pesky winter colds.
Boost your motivation using these top tips for keeping workouts fresh and interesting over the winter:
Increase duration/intensity of exercise – add an extra few minutes to your routine or introduce short bursts of high intensity into your normal workout.
Adapt your regime to prevent fitness plateaus – the body quickly adapts to regular exercise, meaning you need to ring the changes to keep workouts challenging. Try new activities or changing speed and intensity in your existing routine.
Find yourself a workout buddy – the right partner can help you alleviate boredom and stick to your exercise regime. A partner can also motivate and challenge you to succeed.
Set realistic goals – choose a training goal appropriate to your fitness and skill level. Challenge yourself but be realistic about progress. Signing up for a race or other charity fitness event can give you the motivation needed to keep up your training.
Stay positive – a positive mental attitude can work wonders. Endorphin levels drop after just a couple of days of inactivity, reducing mood and energy, making you feel less inclined to exercise. Try to focus on the positive feeling you get after a good workout.