How to Use Fitness to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

man riding bike in the snow

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Sometimes the change in seasons can be a time of excitement and wonder as you watch the leaves change colors or experience the first dusting of snow. But other times it can be a time of gloominess and despair.

In fact, it is not uncommon to experience changes in mood and energy when the seasons change. Sometimes these psychological changes can even start to affect your everyday life.

Seasonal change is often accompanied by shorter, darker days, which can cause what is referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). But, it's also possible to experience SAD during the summer months, too. If you experience changes in your mood or behavior every time the seasons change, you should contact a healthcare provider. It is possible that you have SAD.

Although there are a number of ways to treat SAD, including medications, counseling, and light therapy, there also is some evidence that exercise may help improve symptoms. Below, we take a closer look at seasonal affective disorder as well as provide tips on how exercise can help combat symptoms.

If you or a loved one are struggling with seasonal affective disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Is SAD?

SAD is a type of depression that typically occurs during the fall and winter months, but it can occur in the summer months for some people. Overall, this condition is listed under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) as a type of depression.

When it comes to recognizing SAD, the symptoms mirror those of other types of depression. The difference is that SAD occurs during a specific season of the year and then resolves after about 4 or 5 months when the seasons change.

Not every person will experience SAD in the same way. For this reason, it is important to speak to a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis. Sometimes other health conditions like hypothyroidism will mimic the signs of SAD, so it is important to share all of your symptoms with a healthcare provider.

Potential Symptoms of SAD

Not every person with SAD will experience the same symptoms. Here are some potential signs and symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, worthless, or empty
  • Having low energy or feeling sluggish
  • Losing interest in activities or hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Feeling irritable or agitated
  • Experiencing changes in appetite or weight
  • Desiring to hibernate or withdraw socially
  • Wanting to sleep more than normal
  • Struggling with overeating or craving carbs
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Thinking about death or suicide

Causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Although scientists are not sure what exactly causes SAD, many theorize that reduced sunlight, melatonin levels, and a changing circadian rhythm all play a role. For instance, research shows that changes in your internal biological clock due to reduced exposure to sunlight may impact your mood, sleep, and hormones. 

For some people, this can lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects neurotransmitters, including serotonin. Hormones like serotonin are responsible for feelings of happiness. 

If you are already at risk of low serotonin or other hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalances, you may be more greatly affected by seasonal change, leading to more severe mood changes. Sunlight contributes to the regulation of serotonin, and reduced sunlight can lead to disruptions in the production of this hormone.

Prevalence of SAD

Epidemiological studies reveal the prevalence of SAD is between 1% and 10% of the population. Prevalence may be related to latitude, although studies are mixed. The prevalence in North America is two times higher than it is in Europe. Women experience SAD more often than men at a ratio of 4:1.

Another reason for the development of SAD could be the reduction of vitamin D. If you are less exposed to sunlight, then your body cannot produce as much vitamin D as it does in the brighter months. Consequently, less exposure to sunlight during the winter may cause a vitamin D deficiency affecting your brain chemistry, including serotonin regulation.

Energy levels can also become affected due to melatonin. Reduced exposure to sunlight may cause your body to overproduce melatonin, which can cause you to feel sleepy. Overproduction of melatonin also might make you experience low energy levels and grogginess.

How Activity Can Help Combat SAD

Getting active is often recommended as one way of combatting seasonal affective disorder. Research has shown that exercise is effective for improving symptoms, including low mood and reduced energy levels. 

How Exercise Helps

In fact, research shows that exercising for three sessions per week for 12 to 24 weeks results in a medium to a considerable reduction in the severity of depression and a 22% higher likelihood of remission from depression than usual treatments.

The positive effect that physical activity has on alleviating the symptoms of SAD has been demonstrated consistently according to a review of studies on the topic. However, researchers have yet to establish a consistent physiological explanation for why exercise is so effective. There have been no consistent results across human studies that prove that activity changes melatonin secretion or circadian adaptations.

Several studies on implementing physical activity for those who have depression and anxiety any time of year show that exercise is very effective. Research shows that exercise leads to beneficial changes in how your body responds to stress, including in the HPA-axis which is responsible for the hormonal activity.

Exercise also lessens inflammation and improves the immune system, contributing to feeling more vibrant and energetic. With a healthcare provider's approval, adding in some activity to help combat mood changes that occur with seasonal shifts may be a very effective remedy for SAD.

Exercise for Seasonal Affective Disorder

While there is a current consensus that physical activity is very effective for combating SAD, the exact type, frequency, intensity, and amount of exercise needed is not well known. However, that doesn’t mean there are not some solid suggestions that will improve your symptoms.

Current recommendations are construed from general exercise guidelines, which were developed to improve and maintain fitness and heart health.

The number one priority should be choosing activities that you enjoy and will be able to do consistently. Also, starting small and building up to more activity may be wise so you do not feel overwhelmed or dissuaded if you cannot keep up a certain level of exercise.

Moderate Aerobic Activity

Some research indicates that participating in aerobic activity three times a week at moderate intensity for a minimum of 9 weeks helps combat depression.  Some examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activity include brisk walking, cycling, swimming, and elliptical training.

High Intensity Activity

Other studies have shown a slightly more significant benefit to performing higher intensity activity. But lower intensities still have value and provide relief. Examples of high-intensity activity include running, sprinting, kickboxing, heavy weight lifting, and circuit training.

If you want to try a vigorous activity, stick to performing it two to three times per week to avoid overtraining. On the other days of the week, perform moderate or lower intensity activity as well as active recovery work. Lower intensity and active recovery workouts include walking, hiking, gentle swimming, yoga, and pilates.

Yoga and walking may have additional benefits for improving symptoms of seasonal depression. Yoga has been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression over 8 weeks.

Resistance Training

A review of exercise programs for treating depression demonstrated that a high-intensity resistance training program performed for 8 weeks was more effective than the low-intensity program in reducing depressive symptoms.

The study participants lifted weights that were 80% of their one-rep maximum or at a lower intensity of 20% of one-rep maximum. The higher intensity exercisers showed better results.

That is not to say lower intensity resistance training is not effective. Simply participating in any resistance training will have its benefits. Other studies have shown no difference between high-intensity or low-intensity training for the reduction of symptoms.

Both aerobic and resistance exercise interventions have similar effectiveness. High-intensity exercise (>75% maximal heart rate) demonstrated a more significant effect but only slightly more than lower intensity exercise (61% to 74% maximal heart rate).

A Word From Verywell

Although research indicates that fitness can help combat SAD and contribute to overall health and wellness, it is unclear which type or amount of exercise is best. This means that you should choose what inspires you to get up and move your body consistently.

Both higher and lower intensities of aerobic and resistance training can provide numerous benefits to your health and moods. Exercise also may help balance hormones, increase energy, and reduce mood disturbances.

Just make sure you speak to a healthcare provider not only about how you are feeling but also to determine which type of exercise is best for your situation. Once you get the all-clear, you may want to consider a credible personal trainer or other fitness specialists with knowledge of mental health issues to help you develop a training plan.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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