Fall and winter can prompt warm, happy feelings of cozy togetherness, but it can also trigger the opposite for those dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). As daylight hours dwindle, it's estimated that up to 5 percent of the U.S population struggles with SAD, though another 10 to 20 percent may have milder forms.
Although SAD is characterized by fading away after the winter months, it can feel like an awfully long stretch until that sunlight — literally and figuratively — comes back into your life. The good news is you don't need to move closer to the equator for the next five months. You can get at least part of that sunshine back by upping your physical activity.
Can Exercise Really Help With SAD?
Strength training might be just what you need, suggests a June 2018 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, as it's been linked to a reduction in symptoms of depression. What's more, regular physical activity may even help prevent depression in the first place, according to a November 2019 study in Depression and Anxiety.
That means you might be getting socked with SAD right now, but exercising may help cut down on its effects, and could even reduce the chances that it will come roaring back next year. And see below for even more tips on handling seasonal depression.
Full-Body Workout to Help Manage SAD Symptoms
Making the most of strength training to combat SAD doesn't take an hours-long gym session with multiple machines and visits to the weight rack. You just need a set of dumbbells for this workout from strength and conditioning coach Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean, a guide to strength training for beginners. This will target major muscle groups in under 20 minutes.
Do: 15 to 20 reps for each exercise and repeat the circuit three times through. As you get stronger, increase the amount of weight and lower the number of reps for each exercise.
- Goblet squat
- Single-arm row
- Seated overhead press
- Chest fly
Move 1: Goblet Squat
This squat is a complex, compound exercise, says Perkins, so it targets multiple muscles at the same time. And by holding a weight, it can help your form by keeping your chest up — preventing you from leaning forward.
- Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart, toes out slightly. Hold a dumbbell to your chest, perpendicular to the floor, meaning you're grabbing on to one end of the weight.
- Reach hips back as you slowly bend your legs to squat down, as if you're going to sit on a chair.
- Ideally, Perkins says, your hips should be slightly below the level of your knees, as if there's a downward slope from your knees to your hips.
- Drive into your heels as you push up to rise, keeping the dumbbell in place at your chest.
Move 2: Single-Arm Row
This move is designed to strengthen your back and core, while giving your legs a passive stretch. Doing a single-arm row instead of a traditional, double-arm row can also improve the pulling muscles in your back more effectively, says Perkins.
- Face a bench or chair seat with feet hip-distance apart.
- Bend your knees slightly and hinge your torso forward, place your left hand on the bench or chair, with a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Let the dumbbell hang down, your right arm straight, and then draw the elbow up and back, contracting the muscles of your upper back, with the dumbbell coming up to your rib cage.
- Pause at the top for two seconds.
- Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.
- Do all your reps on one side before switching to the other.
Move 3: Seated Overhead Press
Being seated for this overhead press gives you support while targeting the muscles in your chest, shoulders and triceps.
- Sitting on a bench or chair, hold one dumbbell in each hand, and bring the dumbbells to your shoulders with palms facing forward.
- Push the dumbbells up and together over your head, rotating as you press so palms face each other.
- Lower the weights back down, rotating palms forward.
Move 4: Chest Fly
These can be done on a bench, but lying down on a mat or the floor can help you feel more supported, and also makes it easier to engage your core muscles, and protect your lower back at the same time.
- Lie down with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other, and slowly lift the dumbbells until your arms are extended with elbows slightly bent.
- Lower the dumbbells and arch them out to your sides as if you're opening large cupboard doors, until your elbows and the dumbbells touch the floor on each side of you.
- Squeeze the dumbbells back up and together, as if you're closing that cupboard, letting the dumbbells touch.
Do: Five to eight minutes of easy stretches, perhaps doing a few more slow Sun Salutations.
Other Ways to Deal With Seasonal Depression
When seasonal changes meet up with packed holiday schedules, it's especially important to stick to a consistent workout plan as well as implement other strategies to offset the effects of shorter days, says Aaron Leventhal, CSCS, owner of Fit Studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Even in a state with notoriously subzero temperatures for weeks, for example, he encourages his clients to get outside, particularly in the morning, for a burst of fresh air and sunlight — even the weakened winter kind.
Here are a few more pro tips for reducing the chances that SAD will sabotage your winter:
1. Get as much full-spectrum light as possible. The lack of sun exposure can trigger SAD symptoms. If it's too frosty outside, invest in a light box that has full-spectrum UV light. "Want to really make using that light effective?" says Leventhal. "Put it in your workout room or next to your stationary bike or treadmill. That way you get the advantages of both the light and the exercise."
2. Eat healthy. During a season when comfort food is king, and holiday buffets are feasts of indulgence, it can be tempting to give in to the characteristic cravings for starches and sweets. But that can worsen SAD symptoms. Do your best to load up on fruits and veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats and definitely stay hydrated.
3. Guard your sleep schedule. Because SAD can increase fatigue, there's a temptation to sleep more — a lot more. But that can be just as detrimental as not sleeping enough, says W. Chris Winter, MD, of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of The Sleep Solution.
"Setting a sleep schedule that works for you and sticking to it, even on the weekends, is very important when you're dealing with SAD," he says. "Take a 20-minute nap if you need it, but don't oversleep because that can increase your fatigue in the long run."
4. Seek professional help if needed. Dealing with SAD isn't the same as feeling bummed out or having the "winter blues," it's a form of depression that can be debilitating and even prompt frequent thoughts of death. Although the workout covered here and the other tips can be helpful for reducing symptoms, you should consider talking with a doctor for additional treatments that can help.
- American Family Physician: Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Psychology Today: Seasonal Affective Disorder
- National Institute of Mental Health: Seasonal Affective Disorder
- American Psychological Association: Seasonal affective disorder: More than the winter blues
- Medicine and science in sports and exercise: Active and Sedentary Behaviors Influence Feelings of Energy and Fatigue in Women
- Psychiatry Research: The four seasons: Food intake frequency in seasonal affective disorder in the course of a year
- JAMA Psychiatry: Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training With Depressive Symptoms Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials
- Depression and Anxiety: Physical activity offsets genetic risk for incident depression assessed via electronic health records in a biobank cohort study
- Explore: How Might Yoga Help Depression? A Neurobiological Perspective
- Mayo Clinic: Seasonal affective disorder treatment: Choosing a light therapy box
- Cleveland Clinic: Eating to Lift Your Winter Blues