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February 25, 2022

Caught a case of the winter blues? Exercise and eating healthy may help

The condition – not to be confused with the more serious seasonal affective disorder – often can be overcome through behavioral changes that have long-term benefits

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Winter Blues Exercise Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Natural remedies like exercise, a healthy diet and improved sleep can help people kick the winter blues.

Getting through the dead of winter is always a challenge here in the Northeast. Maybe you put on a few pounds over the holidays. Perhaps your well-intentioned resolution to hit the gym has hit a wall. Not to mention the continuing concerns over COVID-19, and the delay of spring training. It's enough to bring a good man down.

For me, it's the weather. Shifting gears from wind chills in the teens to temperatures in the 60s, and then back to the sub-freezing is a mood killer. Still, we slog ahead and try to make the best of it. Or, do we?

The winter blues is not a defined medical diagnosis but a milder condition that clears up in short-order, according to the experts at the National Institute of Health. Still, the winter blues is recognized as a factor that impacts the quality of our lives.

A more serious condition, and a form of depression that could last several weeks and repeat each year, is seasonal affective disorder. While SAD is treatable, and can resolve naturally, the potential for a 5-month duration annually is among the reasons to seek professional help.

In differentiating the two, clinicians at Rush University Medical Center say the winter blues may have you feeling more lethargic or gloomy, but shouldn't stop you from enjoying life. On the other hand, they suggest that when your mood invades all parts of your life, like work and relationships, it's a sign of SAD, and important to get help. Winter blues affects about 14% of Americans, while 6% are diagnosed with SAD.

Natural defenses

So, whether your goal is to minimize the blues or you are grappling with a more serious condition, there are a number of natural strategies to help fight the dreary feelings.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center says you can overcome a winter slump by eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and getting enough sleep. Being down may cause you to crave foods high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar. It's important to resist the temptation and try to consume more fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. Through exercise, your body will produce the feel-good chemicals that reduce anxiety. Good sleep can heal your mind and body.

A Stanford University study found measurable mental health benefits and the potential to reduce depression by exploring nature. The research reported that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression when measured against those who walked in a high-traffic urban setting.

And Kaiser Permanente recommends you take advantage of every opportunity for daylight, such as placing exercise equipment or locating your work area near a window. If affordable, a trip to a warmer climate also works.

Additional defenses

If you can't get enough sun naturally, the University of Michigan recommends vitamin D supplements or foods like fish, yogurt and eggs, which contain vitamin D. Treatments specifically for SAD may include phototherapy, cognitive behavior therapy or antidepressant medication, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Restarting your exercise regimen

While I'm a year-round gym rat, I find that exercising is particularly beneficial in coping with the doldrums of winter. Gym regulars know that there is a big drop-off in volume in February as the New Year's resolution carnage hits its peak. Whether you're a victim of a failed resolution, there's never a bad time to start, or re-start your fitness routine, and confronting the winter blues is a great trigger.

Once you commit to jump into the fitness habit, you'll want to do everything you can to stay motivated. The Mayo Clinic offers several tips to keep from getting bored and staying on your game. The ones I find most important include: setting goals that are simple and realistic, inviting friends or co-workers to join you for exercise or walks, and making physical activity a part of your daily routine, but with a big dose of flexibility. Don't fret if you miss a day. Give yourself a break and bounce right back.

Your social strategy

Beyond diet and exercise, our social lives offer a great way to stay energized and happy despite the clouds and cold. The motivational power of our relationships is a constant in my healthy behavior mantra. They are one of the most important weapons in my battle against the drudgery of winter. 

I try to get out to dinner every week with my wife or sons, if not both. I use key work milestones as another way to stay focused and ignore the elements. And, I am actively looking ahead to the spring and summer, making plans and considering options. Combined with my physical work, the emotional boost represents a great way to counter the blues and create a bridge to the spring.

What's right for you? Clearing the clutter, walking the dog, working out, adjusting your diet? The options are endless. What's important is to recognize your feelings and respond accordingly. If you feel totally debilitated, then you'll want to get some help. If you're a just a little down, then these strategies may be all you need. In either case, they may be just what you need to help you get through the balance of the winter, and possibly something you can stick with for over the long-run.

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

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