Exercise to Manage the Winter Blues

The winter blues can impact your mood.


We are well into winter and have celebrated the new year. By this point, you might be settled into your new year’s routines and yet still feel a little “blah” due to the winter blues.

In addition to cozy fireplaces and hot cocoa, winter brings gray skies, limited sunshine, cold weather, and shorter days. Combined, these winter staples can negatively affect people’s moods.

Winter blues is not an official medical diagnosis, but major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern, commonly referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is.

People experience different levels of sadness that can range anywhere from feeling down for one day to feeling very depressed on most days. The intensity of these feelings can affect people differently so talking with a counselor to understand how your unique circumstances impact your emotions can be helpful. In addition to talking with a mental health professional, exercise is one way you can combat the winter blues.

Exercise and Depression

Sometimes the last thing people want to do when they are feeling depressed is get out of bed and get dressed, let alone put on workout clothes to exercise. People who experience depression can feel low physical and mental energy, fatigue, and low motivation, however, exercise can help them feel better. It is important to note that exercise is not a replacement for medication, but it is an additional tool people can use. For example, researchers at Duke University noted that people who exercise regularly are less likely to be depressed, and that exercise can help improve symptoms for people who are experiencing depression.

Start Slow

People who currently do not exercise might feel intimidated to begin movement. Exercising has significant benefits on physical ailments like heart disease and obesity, and new physical activity guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) confirm that some movement is better than no movement. If you are new to exercise, talk with a certified personal trainer and start slow with the goal to build up your movement minutes to meet the recommended guidelines. Remember to talk with your medical provider before starting an exercise program.

The WHO weekly guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes (two and a half to five hours per week) of moderate intensity or 75 to 150 minutes for adults aged 18 to 65, with an additional two days of strength training. For adults over the age of 65, the WHO also recommends functional movement (balance, cardiovascular, gait training) of moderate or higher intensity three times per week to help maintain mobility and reduce falls.

Walking on indoor tracks with friends or taking a low-impact group fitness class are two ways you can begin to integrate movement into your weekly routine and experience social benefits at the same time.

Try Yoga

Yoga is a great way to integrate physical activity into your life. Western interpretations of yoga include breathing techniques paired with a series of postures or movements with the goal of calming the mind and strengthening the body, and researchers support the use of yoga to help manage depression, stress, and anxiety.


Restorative yoga helps people relax


Yoga can be practiced in the comfort of your own home via online platforms or you can visit a yoga studio and practice with a group. People are more likely to continue their yoga practice when they receive training on proper techniques and movements, so it is a good idea to try group yoga and learn firsthand from an instructor before trying it on your own. Styles of yoga range from relaxing (restorative yoga) to intense (Hatha and hot yoga) and movements can be adapted to any level of skill and bodily ability.

Start Moving, Start Sweating

Engaging in exercise that safely increases the heart rate has been linked with overall improvements in physical health and reductions in mental health symptoms. Exercises like walking or running on a treadmill, dance-based fitness classes, and group cycling allow exercisers to work at their own pace to work up a sweat. People who are new to exercise feel intimidated, but most gyms are welcoming environments and have trainers who can help you learn how to use the equipment and sign up for classes.


Cardio exercise can help improve moods.

Source: ArturVerkhovetskiy/Depositphotos


We can’t control the weather, but we can control our plan to combat the winter blues. The first step might feel difficult, but getting into an exercise routine that includes drinking water and eating healthy foods can be your way of adding some happiness to your life during the dark winter days. Schedule time with friends who will exercise with you—you can work to motivate each other to reach your goals. Not only can exercise help lighten your mood, but being around friends can help, too. Try a yoga class, cardiovascular movement on the treadmill, and some light strength work to help you train your brain to release feel-good neurotransmitters. In addition to exercise, talk with your friends and mental health providers about ways to feel lighter moods when the winter blues creep up. Together, these tips can help you gain a fresh perspective as you wait for spring to arrive.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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