About the Article’s Author
Note to the reader: This article was written by Dana Santas, famously known as the “Mobility Maker. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, professional sports mind-body coach and the author of “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”
Winter Challenges to Mental Health
Winter’s shorter, darker days can be challenging for many people’s mental health. Some may even experience a clinically depressive state known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition is characterized by symptoms like low energy, lack of motivation, disrupted sleep, and a sense of hopelessness.
Boosting Mental Health Through Physical Activity
If you are experiencing SAD or would like to prevent depression proactively, utilizing your body’s natural ability to boost mental health can be very effective. This is especially useful during the darker, gloomier days of the winter season.
Regular physical activity is beneficial to the body by reducing the risk of developing conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. However, moving your body also offers substantial benefits in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Effectiveness of Moderate Physical Activity
The good news is, it requires less effort than you might think to achieve these mental benefits. Activities like brisk walking and other forms of moderate physical activity can promote psychological health as effectively as more intense workouts. This is according to the American Psychological Association.
This article outlines four scientifically-proven methods of boosting your mental health and easing the winter blues through physical activity.
Important note: If you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, consult with your doctor for treatment advice and to rule out any other medical issues that can cause similar symptoms. Also, remember to consult your doctor before beginning any new forms of exercise.
Walking For Mental Health
When feeling down, the idea of exercising might feel overwhelming. However, simply starting with one step at a time can set you on the path to overcoming seasonal blues. Walking is one of the most accessible and beneficial aerobic exercises available. With a supportive pair of walking shoes and a little attention to proper form, you can start your journey towards improved physical and mental health.
If winter weather prevents you from taking walks outside, consider using a treadmill if you have access to one, or try doing laps inside your local mall. Many malls open their doors early to allow walkers to get their steps in before the stores open.
Start by taking the first step. Remember, even relatively small doses of activity offer significant mental health benefits according to numerous studies. So, don’t worry about how much or how often you should walk initially. However, reaching the World Health Organization’s guidelines of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise weekly can provide maximum overall physical and mental health benefits.
Enjoyable Forms of Exercise
Going to the gym isn’t the only way to get exercise. Instead, think about activities you enjoy in your free time that could be considered exercise. Any activity that gets you standing and moving qualifies as physical activity. Activities like dancing, bowling, or even axe throwing can be considered forms of exercise. Try to set a weekly schedule to enjoy your chosen activity regularly. Studies have shown that just an hour a week of leisure-time exercise of any intensity can decrease future depression occurrence.
If you don’t already have any active hobbies, don’t be afraid to try new ones. You could sign up for a dance class or other recreational fitness class. You can find local classes and recreational groups online via social media and community-based social apps such as Meetup. If you are a parent or grandparent, get involved in playtime with the children. Join in on the fun, whether it’s in the living room, the backyard, or the playground.
Strength Training for Mood Boosting
Aerobic exercises aren’t the only way to boost your mood. When you’re feeling low, consider starting strength training exercises. Strength training, also known as resistance training or weight training, has been shown in numerous studies to reduce depression symptoms significantly.
A 2018 study published in JAMA Psychiatry analyzed 33 clinical trials involving more than 1,800 participants for the effects of resistance exercise on depression. The study found that strength training “significantly reduced depressive symptoms.” Moreover, the study’s authors discovered that the benefits did not diminish regardless of health status, the total prescribed volume of resistance exercise training, or the levels of improvement in strength.
If you’re new to strength training, it’s essential to select the right weight and start slow. Consider trying a workout using only one dumbbell, focusing on combining a series of exercises that can work your whole body.
Yoga for Mental Health
Rolling out your yoga mat can give you a much-needed boost on dark, winter days. Yoga has long been praised for its mood-boosting properties, and research supports that there is a promising link between practicing yoga and easing depression.
A 2023 randomized controlled clinical trial led by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers found that adults with moderate-to-severe depression who participated in heated yoga sessions experienced significantly greater reductions in depressive symptoms compared to those who did not.
Yoga classes are widely available at gyms, studios, and community centers. Additionally, if you prefer not to or can’t attend classes, you can easily practice yoga at home by following simple routines available online.
No matter the form of exercise you choose, incorporating just a little more physical activity into your life will provide noticeable mood-boosting benefits to help you overcome the seasonal slump.
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