Does your mood take a dive when the autumn leaves drop? As many as one in five of us gets some form of the winter blues: the increased moodiness and depressive symptoms that can come with shorter days, colder temperatures, and prolonged periods spent indoors.
For those whose symptoms are severe enough for a diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (or SAD), the problem can be a real health risk. The poor self-care and sleep habits that can accompany a mood disorder can lower immune systems and increase vulnerability to illness during seasons when colds and flu spread more rapidly. (Some SAD sufferers have increased symptoms during the spring and summer, but the fall/winter version is much more common.)
If you think you may suffer from SAD, your doctor or mental health professional may be able to recommend medication and light therapies that can help. But whether your symptoms are moderate or severe, there’s one simple lifestyle change that can improve your winter mood: Make sure you regularly spend time outdoors. Here’s why:
It brightens your day.
Health experts suggest that spending time outside during the colder months can greatly improve your mood, especially if you can do so within two hours of getting up in the morning. If you can catch some sun (even through the clouds) and get some of that critical vitamin D, so much the better.
It helps you sleep better.
The links between natural light, melatonin, and healthy sleep cycles are increasingly clear. A researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder found that subjects in a series of studies experienced more regular sleep after just a weekend of camping. If winter camping isn’t your idea of a good time, similar results can be achieved through exposure to morning light and limiting nighttime use of devices such as smartphones.
It gets your heart pumping.
Outdoor exercise is a powerful mood booster at any time of year. And if you keep moving and are properly dressed, you’ll be able to spend more time outside without feeling cold. Wear lightweight, moisture-wicking layers, especially next to your skin. Wear a hat, gloves, and understand your risk for frostbite. A bonus benefit: Fitness experts suggest that cold weather exercise burns more calories and helps to strengthen your heart.
You may learn to love this season.
Or at least hate it less. Many SAD sufferers dread the winter months, but getting out in the weather regularly can help you understand that you have some control over the situation.
Start working on your outdoor routine now, while the mornings aren’t quite so dark and the temps aren’t quite so cold. You’ll find your transition to winter will go more smoothly. And take heart: Winter’s arrival means spring is just around the corner.