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Beating Seasonal Affective Disorder With Exercise



Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD – is not the same as the 'winter blues'. This depressive illness is related to the seasons, usually starting in autumn and continuing throughout the winter. It affects millions of people worldwide.

It’s important not to confuse SAD with the plain old winter blues, which everyone experiences at some time or other during the coldest, darkest months. To have genuine SAD, you’ll have experienced symptoms for two years running, including feeling constantly tired, spending longer in bed, increased appetite, lack of motivation and disturbed sleep.

SAD tends to affect adults (especially those aged 18 to 30) more than children or teenagers (although this tends to decline after the age of 50). Women are significantly more likely than men to have SAD, possibly due to evolutionary influences on seasonal reproductive cycles. And it is most prevalent in northern latitudes where daylight hours are fewer.

Common wisdom has it that simple exposure to more sunlight is the answer, as this will provide more vitamin D, but this may not be the total answer. Yes, as this study found, vitamin D deficiency can exacerbate SAD. Vitamin D may be involved in the production of feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, and people who are depressed commonly have low vitamin D levels.

However, it has not been established that low vitamin D levels are the main cause of SAD. Another study found that supplementation of vitamin D did not directly improve symptoms. And in places where winters are particularly long and dark, simply getting outside for some healing rays is not really an option.

What is not in doubt is the value of exercise in combatting any form of stress, anxiety or depression – including SAD. This is especially true if you balance your intense cardio and strength classes with mindfulness-based exercises and activities such as yoga and meditation. According to research, for example, just 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation can significantly alleviate stress. 

If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere you can get outdoors in winter, we now know that spending as little as 20 minutes in nature can lower stress hormone levels and boost mood. You can burn more calories jogging outdoors than on a treadmill (owing to the differences in the terrain and wind resistance). Unfortunately, some modern urban dwellers are spending up to 90 percent of their time indoors – so if all that’s keeping you from getting out more is a busy schedule, it’s probably time to rebalance this. 

Making time for a little activity can make way for a lot less stress…

Move It

The body likes to move. Trust us, it’s what keeps it performing at it’s best! Being active increases blood flow around the body, including the flow to the brain. By getting in plenty of regular exercise, this blood flow prevents the body from getting sluggish, giving us better focus, concentration and positive thoughts.

Social Stress Relief

Working out with others not only helps you to feel part of a community, but also helps you to feel more motivated, and perform better.

The feel-good hormones that come from working out with friends act as natural stress relievers, whilst the excitement of hitting your goals together will only boost the rush further.

Soothe The Soreness

Aches and pains caused by hunching over a desk all day can bring on a little crankiness. Throw in harsh office strip lighting and air conditioned workspaces, and the body has every reason to feel a little sad!

Exercise will help to stretch out those muscles that have been contorted up over that computer all day, and give the body a boost of energy, in turn, making you feel more alert.

The Endorphin Effect

Exercise encourages the body to release the happy hormones, endorphins. The more often you exercise, the longer the effects last. Commit to a weekly fitness class to ensure you get your hit of happiness regularly. 

Cut The Cortisol

Similarly, regular workouts will help to lower the amounts of stress hormones, Cortisol and Adrenalin within the body, making you feel more relaxed.

Feeling stressed? Rather than reach for a strong coffee, a post-work drink, or seek medication to help us deal with SAD, exercise is not only one of the most powerful solutions, it’s the most natural and sustainable.

It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you're doing. Take a run, accompanied by your favourite playlist. Tackle a group fitness class with friends, or take to the great outdoors... it all counts towards the feel good factor!

Thanks to Les Mills for these insights,  originally shared on


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