The Christmas decorations are long packed up. You’re still watching shows in one sitting. And outside your makeshift home office window, darkness sets in by 5 p.m.
This is the backdrop heading into late January. With the holidays behind us but winter still very much here, it’s a tough time of year.
“About 15 per cent of Canadians experience mild symptoms of sadness at this time of year, and it’s associated with dark, cold weather. That period from January to March can loom over people,” says Margaret Eaton, National chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
The winter blues are different from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of clinical depression affecting two to three per cent of Canadians.
Then there’s the pandemic, an experience making us particularly vulnerable to the effects of winter this year. “In research with the University of British Columbia, we found 40 per cent of Canadians say their mental health has deteriorated since the onset of the pandemic,” Eaton says.
The good news is that there’s an easy way to start boosting your mood: exercise. “Exercise can build resiliency and help stave off some of the worst impacts of depression,” Eaton says.
In partnership with ParticipACTION, a non-profit that promotes active, healthy living, we look at how getting physically active can help beat the winter blues.
Exercise and mood are connected in a number of ways. “Any type of movement — but particularly movement at higher intensities — will release feel-good hormones such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin,” says Dr. Leigh Vanderloo, knowledge translation manager for ParticipACTION. “Exercise also decreases stress hormones such as cortisol. Physiologically, this is going to help improve our moods, because we’ll feel more resilient when met with more stressful situations.”
Being physically active can also help release tension in our bodies. “When we’re dealing with low mood, we tend to carry it in our muscles around the head, neck and shoulders,” Vanderloo says. “Being active regularly provides an opportunity for muscle tension release, which is also going to help us feel better.”
Even better, you don’t need to log a 5K run daily to get these effects; just a 10-minute exercise break can help. “There’s a lot of research out there reporting that after one single session of physical activity, we’ll start to see some positive benefits with our mood,” Vanderloo says.
Health guidelines suggest that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 need to be moderately to vigorously active for at least 150 minutes a week, to reduce sedentary behaviour and to get seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep each night on a regular basis.
According to data collected by ParticipACTION, Canadians are more likely to use sedentary, not physical, activities to cope with stress and anxiety. The data indicated that less than half engage in physical activity as a form of coping. “We can’t avoid sitting, but the more often we get active and make it routine, the more beneficial it will be,” Vanderloo says.
Heading outside to get moving can help even more. A brisk walk in the winter sun will give you an extra mood boost, thanks to the vitamin D your body produces with sun exposure, she says. “There are added benefits that come from breathing in all the different scents, and there’s more to look at,” Vanderloo adds.
Making exercise time social can also help improve mental health, she says. While being social is challenging in a pandemic, talking on the phone to a friend during your walk, or video calling and exercising together from home will keep you motivated and connected.
Using exercise to help your mood, however, is not a one-time fix. It’s more of a long-term commitment, so choose something you like to do. “And pick the time you’re most likely to stick with it,” Vanderloo says. “Some research shows doing it in the morning helps, because it gets it out of the way and sets the stage for a more productive day. But if you need to do it at another time, you’re not getting any less health benefits because you didn’t do it earlier. Go with the time you’re most likely to be consistent with.”
Want to find other ways to incorporate more physical activity into your life to help your mental health? Check out ParticipACTION.com.