Natural light and movement can help beat depression, other ailments.
DETROIT — Here’s some feel-good, look-better exercise advice from obesity and behavior experts, even for confirmed winter couch potatoes.
Don’t wait for spring. Get active now. And if you can, get outside.
Being active through a deep winter, and especially being active outdoors — anything from heart-pumping cross-country skiing to a simple mid day walk — has big payoffs in terms of staving off mild winter depression and weight gain that become virtually epidemic in many parts of the country each February.
As many as 7 in 10 Michiganders, for example, feel some form of winter depression, according to research from the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md.
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Lyndsy Bickmann, 26, of Sterling Heights, Mich., says she’s prone to the cold-weather blues.
“I feel like I get winter depression,” says Bickmann, a substitute teacher in the Utica and Romeo school districts. Last year, a friend suggested snowshoeing.
“I was very skeptical, but I enjoyed it. I felt I could walk without slipping. And it gave me a purpose to go out and look at the trails” at Independence Oaks County Park in Independence Township, Mich., where snowshoes are available for rent. Later, on a whim, she rented cross-country skis at the same park.
“I got the hang of it really quickly, and it changed my life. I’m feeling so good. I even conned my husband into coming out and trying it,” Bickmann says. The two have skied half a dozen times and have more outings planned this winter, she says.
Getting active this time of year can help in unexpected ways. It shifts your body to instinctively make wiser food choices while also raising your mood and energy level, says Jonathan Erhman, with the clinical weight-management program at Henry Ford Health System’s Center for Athletic Medicine in Detroit.
“There’s evidence that people who become routine exercisers change their diet just naturally. They tend to eat healthier, and it’s not always a conscious decision. It seems to come from just being active,” he says.
For winter exercisers, that means overcoming the cravings that foster cold-weather weight gains.
“We see this all the time — people who’ve been inactive through the winter and now, at this point, they’ve gained anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds,” says exercise physiologist Richard Lampman, a research director at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., who does radio podcasts on fitness and heart health for the American College of Sports Medicine.
“About two thirds of them say they feel very lethargic at this time of year. They’re tired all the time and they chalk it up to just feeling lousy every winter,” he says.
If you haven’t exercised lately, start indoors with home equipment, machines at a fitness center or walking inside a mall while you await milder days that entice you to step outdoors, Ehrman says. Those with winter-sports skills and equipment can dig out their gear and hit the slopes and trails with skis and snowshoes.
“You do expend more calories in the cold,” accelerating weight loss, Ehrman says.
“If you wait for the right time this spring, you probably won’t find time to get started. But people who start now are always surprised at how much more progress they make by summer. Their muscles are toned by spring, and they’re really ready to exercise with more intensity,” he says.
Even if you’ve been active indoors this winter — walking on a treadmill, doing yoga or swimming — the special benefits of combining calorie burning with winter sunlight, even on partly cloudy days, should be considered. The combination has a powerful effect on brain chemicals that spark a sense of well-being, says Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a NIMH psychiatrist. In 1984, Rosenthal led a team that identified the most serious form of winter depression, naming it seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
Seasonal affective disorder triggers cravings for sweets and starches and for sleep.
“What we do know is that, in most patients, this problem naturally eases when the days lengthen and winter turns to spring,” says Rosenthal. But by waiting until then to exercise and seek natural light, sufferers endure unproductive, depressing winters, then struggle through each spring and summer to lose weight and get fit.
“There are studies that show the good effects of natural light and studies that show the good effects of exercise, but the combination (of the two) is much more effective” at raising moods, Rosenthal says. Only 25 percent of patients in most studies showed dramatic improvements with either exercise or natural light, but when combined there were significant improvements for at least half of those with serious winter depression.
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Health experts say that winter exercise, especially when it’s outdoors, has these benefits:
Eases symptoms of depression through the release of mood-raising brain chemicals, maximized by exposure to natural light.
Fights weight gain by burning calories, and burning more than usual in the cold, while suppressing common winter cravings for starchy and sweet carbohydrates.
Builds muscle tone and stamina leading into spring and summer, allowing people to intensify their exercise routines quickly in warm weather to reach their goals. It also contributes to better heart health.