Just a few short months ago, you were making steady progress with your workout routine. But now, you can barely motivate yourself out of bed. Not only is your fitness level deteriorating, but all you can think about these days is food—the starchier and sweeter, the better. What is going on?
You may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that affects as many as one in four Americans during the winter months. Symptoms include difficulty waking up in the morning, lethargy, decreased concentration and productivity, increased craving for carbohydrate-rich foods, often resulting in weight gain, and feelings of sadness or depression. Those with SAD may have some or all of these symptoms, which can range from mild to severe. The milder form of this disorder is referred to as the “winter blues.”
While SAD is not entirely understood, it’s believed that it occurs as a result of decreased sunlight during the winter months, particularly in northern regions of the country. The peak incidence of SAD is in December, January and February, precisely the time that winter’s darkness descends upon us in full force.
Exercising, the very thing you feel least like doing when it’s blistery cold outside, may be one of the best anecdotes for SAD. Exercise increases your body’s level of serotonin, a hormone that helps to regulate mood, sleep and appetite. But in order to keep things exciting, you may need to change your routine. Here are some ideas:
“Embrace the sunshine when it’s available,” says Christine Burke, a certified personal trainer from San Diego, California. Burke recommends changing your workout time if possible to the brightest light of the day, remembering to dress appropriately for cooler weather.
“Find a new way to do what you’re already doing,” recommends Liz Marmesh, M.S., CSCS, an exercise physiologist from South Beach, Florida. In northern regions, this may be a power walk with the aid of Yaktrax, a slip-on shoe crampon that provides traction in the ice and snow (available beginning at $19.90 at www.backcountry.com). If you’re an avid biker, you might consider wider or studded tires for extra grip and stability in the wintertime.
“Take it indoors,” advises Sarah Lurie, a certified personal trainer and certified Kettlebell instructor from San Diego, California. This may be simply setting up your treadmill in front of a floor stand light box and turning on the music. Lurie also suggests Kettlebell, an “old school” Russian technique that is re-emerging as a new trend in fitness, consisting of dynamic movements using a solid cast iron weight. All you need is 30 minutes three times a week to receive a full-body workout, she claims. Kettlebell equipment with instructional DVD is available at Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Paragon Sports, Sports Chalet, online at www.gofit.net, and at other leading fitness retail stores, starting at $29.99.
Other ideas for indoors? Consider spinning, an indoor cycling activity set to music, which uses specially designed bikes in a class atmosphere. The instructor guides students through a variety of intensities and techniques designed to improve cardiovascular fitness and strength. And if you like to use a stationary bike at home, consider a windtrainer, a device that attaches to the back wheel of your bike and resists the wheel when pedaled. Put the bike in front of the TV or computer screen and cruise along roads in the Rocky Mountains with a DVD by Endurance Films (www.endurancefilms.com).
If you have the money to spare, invest in a computer windtrainer such as the CompuTrainer, to take indoor training to a whole new level. This interactive software system, used by Ironman champs, has a microprocessor that you attach to the bike’s handlebars and a computer connection that allows you to select your scenic ride and have an interactive experience with tougher pedaling uphill and an easy ride down. CompuTrainer systems are available from about $1,500 from RacerMate Inc. (www.racermateinc.com).
Find something new to master. Keep your workout routine fresh by attempting something totally new. Try Rollerblading, dancing, racquetball, Pilates, swimming, snowshoeing or skiing. And don’t forget to have fun, says Burke. “Things like sledding, skating and snowball fights offer a perfect opportunity for fun, fitness and family time,” she adds.
Work out with a buddy. It’s easier to stay motivated if you find a buddy to exercise with, claims Marmesh. This may be the time to work with a personal trainer to correct faulty techniques and learn some new moves, too.
Let There Be Light
Darkness has a profound affect on all living beings, and we are no exception. As sunlight decreases, our biological clock responds accordingly, telling us to stay in bed until the sun gets up rather than rising at the time demanded by work or school. The resulting discrepancy in the sleep-wake cycle, combined with an excess of a sleep-inducing hormone called melatonin that our bodies produce in abundance as the days grow shorter, can result in the winter blues.
The best therapy for SAD is to find the light. Ideally, this would be a winter trip to the Caribbean, but if you can’t swing that, you need to consider alternative light sources. One such device is a “dawn simulator,” which is a light with a timer that you place in your bedroom. It switches on early in the morning, shining dimly at first, and then growing increasingly brighter, to send a May sunrise signal to your brain, compelling you to wake up.
While the dawn simulator helps you to roll out of bed, a better source of light therapy for alleviating symptoms of SAD is a light box, which delivers high intensity light similar to the sun’s natural rays to your eyes. The light box is used for about 30 to 45 minutes each morning, during which time you can eat breakfast, check your e-mail or read the newspaper. As many as 50 percent of people suffering from SAD report improvement of symptoms with light therapy. Experts recommend a light box with light intensity of 10,000 lux (a regular light bulb emits about 250 to 500 lux).
Eat to Beat the Blues
If light and exercise help to stave off the winter blues, a nutritious diet is the final piece of the puzzle. Try to resist munching your way through a jumbo bag of potato chips or polishing off the entire box of chocolate chip cookies. Instead, aim for a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low fat dairy products. Stock up on foods that are known to increase serotonin levels in the brain, such as turkey, chicken, fish, cottage cheese, avocados and bananas. Eating smaller portions every two or three hours rather than three large meals a day may help to reduce sluggishness, too.
If All Else Fails
If despite your efforts with light, exercise and a good diet, you still have symptoms of SAD, don’t be afraid to seek medical help. Your doctor may prescribe short term antidepressant medication alone or in combination with cognitive behavior therapy or light therapy to help diminish your symptoms and move you along the pathway to feeling normal once again. MS&F