How Working Out Can Lessen Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

by Jodi Helmer
Share it:
How Working Out Can Lessen Seasonal Affective Disorder Symptoms

Frigid temperatures and shorter days can make it tempting to hibernate under a blanket until spring. For those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), finding the motivation to work out during the winter can be an even bigger challenge.


SAD, also known as seasonal depression, is a form of depression that coincides with the change of seasons. The symptoms include guilt, despair, anxiousness, mood swings, fatigue, overeating and sleep disruptions. In most cases, the symptoms start in the fall, peak in the winter and disappear in the spring. It affects an estimated 5% of the U.S. population, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America.

The shorter days cause decreases in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and increases in melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Research shows melatonin levels are higher when the days are shorter, throwing circadian rhythms out of whack and leading to depressive symptoms.


When your mood is low, the motivation to exercise can be low, too. But Donna M. Marino, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Naperville, Illinois, notes that exercise is one of the best ways to beat the winter blues.

“Exercise helps with the symptoms of SAD, but the symptoms of SAD make you not want to exercise,” she explains.

These four strategies can improve your mood and keep your workouts from getting off track during these long winter days:



It’s easier to skip a workout when no one is counting on you to show up, notes Marino. Go running with a co-worker at lunch or make plans to check out a yoga class together. In addition to burning calories, you’ll boost your mood, according to one poll that showed adults who played team sports reported improved physical health, lower levels of stress and positive mental health.

“Get an accountability partner, someone you can work out with who will know if you are keeping your commitment,” Marino advises. “Find [activities] that you actually enjoy. Now is not the time to train for a marathon or take up running if you’ve never liked it.”



Vitamin D is the so-called the sunshine vitamin because our bodies produce it in response to the ultraviolet-B rays from the sun. Less UVB exposure during the winter months means less vitamin D.

Research published in the journal PLOS One found vitamin D levels dropped during the winter, falling to their lowest levels in March. Marino recommends spending time outside during daylight hours to pump up vitamin D levels.

“Exercising outdoors in the sun is helpful, but you want to do it when the sun is somewhat strong and, unfortunately, you want to do it without sunscreen to absorb the [vitamin] D,” she says.

Limit your sunscreen-free time to 15 minutes and aim to be outdoors in late afternoon when the sun is strongest.

Eating foods such as salmon, tuna and fortified milk and orange juice,all rich in vitamin D, could also help, notes Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, dietitian and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition.



SAD could make you crave more carbohydrate-rich foods, including sweet and starchy foods, according to one study. Gorin explains that eating more carbs leads to an increase in serotonin production, which can make you feel better — at least temporarily. While carbs like whole-grain rice are an important part of a healthy diet, Gorin warns, “When you over-consume one food group, you leave less space for the other foods and nutrients that you should be consuming … [and] you are consuming more calories than you need, which can lead to weight gain.”

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends carbs make up between 45–65% of your total daily calories — no more than 1,300 grams in a 2,000-calorie diet with most of those coming from “healthy” carbs like vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.



The link between sleep and mood is well established. The newest study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, found those who slept fewer than eight hours per night were more apt to experience negative moods. Crawl under the covers for at least eight hours per night and set the alarm to knock out a moderate-intensity workout before heading to work.

“Once you see the benefits of exercising — the improvement in mood, sleeping better and improvements in fatigue, this will also help motivate you to keep going,” Marino says.

About the Author

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer writes about health and wellness for publications like WebMD, AARP, Shape, Woman’s Day, Arthritis Today and Costco Connection among others. She often comes up with the best story ideas while hiking with her rescue dogs. You can read Jodi’s work or follow her on Twitter @helmerjodi.


Never Miss a Post!

Turn on MyFitnessPal desktop notifications and stay up to date on the latest health and fitness advice.


Click the 'Allow' Button Above


You're all set.