Beat the Winter Blues

The temperatures are brisker, even bitter cold sometimes. The days are shorter. And there’s less sunlight to brighten the sky.

For many, that’s just the right combination to spark the winter blues.

“Many people experience a dip in their mood and energy levels during the winter months, particularly in January and February,” says Martin Vatheuer, MD,. a family physician with EvergreenHealth Primary Care in Canyon Park “When it’s colder outside and the weather gets nastier, people tend to stay in more. The combination of less activity and less daylight can result in depression.”

Dr. Vatheuer says most researchers believe the winter blues, or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), is related to the way the body responds to daylight.

“There’s an area of the brain that links to vision,” he explains. “Light entering the eye causes special nerve cells to be activated, and these affect a special part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This “SCN” then changes hormone levels in the body, and the end effect is that light helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm. Less light can lead to lower levels of melatonin, which is linked to depression.”

Best Line of Defense

Keeping active, Dr. Vatheuer says, is one of the best ways to fight winter blues.

“There’s a lot of evidence that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least three times a week can fight against depression,” Dr. Vatheuer explains.

Activity is believed to change the level of serotonin, a mood-regulating chemical in the brain.

Additionally, when the body is engaged in a high level of cardiovascular activity, endorphins kick in to provide a “runners’ high.”

Endorphins are hormones that reduce the sensation of pain and are thought to produce a euphoric feeling like the feelings that opiates produce.

That euphoric feeling, Dr. Vatheuer says, comes from the kind of strenuous and prolonged aerobic or cardiovascular activity that gets your heart beating fast and has you breathing hard.

He understands, however, it may be difficult for someone already struggling with energy levels to find the motivation to exercise three times a week.

“If you can exercise once a week, that’s a great start. Two times is even better. And the real benefit — both mentally and physically — will come as you work your way up to three or more times a week.”

The key, Dr. Vatheuer says, is to start. “It is always hard to start exercising again so start small—15 to 20 minutes per session. Then add five minutes each session,” he recommends. “I tell patients you can even feel better that day if you exercise long and hard, for maybe 30-40 minutes. Then, if you do it consistently, pretty soon your baseline mood improves, not to mention the sense of accomplishment you’ll have that comes with getting in shape.”

Ideas to Get Moving

If you need to get moving this winter and don’t belong to a gym or have exercise equipment in your home, Dr. Vatheuer says there’s still a lot you can do to increase your heart rate. Ideas include:

  • Climbing stairs
  • Jumping rope
  • Doing jumping jacks
  • Doing “band” strengthening and stretching exercises
  • Dancing
  • Playing video games like Kinect Sports, Zumba Fitness Rush, Dance Central, Wii Play, and Wii Fit

Dr. Vatheuer also notes that he has had patients who have found videos on YouTube or downloaded apps for the smartphone to get them exercising.

Whatever you do, the goal is to aim for your target heart rate.

According to the American Heart Association, finding your training heart rate starts with your resting heart rate. A person’s resting heart rate is the number of times the heart beats per minute while it’s at rest.  

It’s best to check your resting heart rate in the morning after you’ve had a good night’s sleep and before you get out of bed.

The average resting heart rate is 60-80 beats per minute; it’s usually lower, however, for physically fit people.  It also rises with age.

Once you know your resting heart rate, you can determine your target heart rate. Here’s how:

  • Take your pulse on the inside of your wrist on the thumb side.
  • Use the tips of your first two fingers (not your thumb) to press lightly over the blood vessels on your wrist.
  • Count your pulse for 6 seconds and multiply by 10 to find your beats per minute.  For example, if you count 12 beats in 6 seconds, that’s a pulse of 120.
  • You want to stay between 50-85 percent of your maximum heart rate. This range is your target heart rate.
  • For example, a 40 year-old may aim for 90-153 beats per minute, while a 60-year-old would aim for a pulse between 80-136

There are also online tools to help you determine your target heart rate:

When the Blues Won’t Go Away

What if your winter blues aren’t lifting? If that happens, how do you know when it’s time to seek medical help?

“First of all, it’s always good to talk to a family or internal medicine doctor,” Dr. Vatheuer says. “They can give you a perspective that’s objective and determine if you need any sort of bright light therapy, counseling, or pharmacological intervention.”

Dr. Vatheuer says he uses the MSIGECAPS scale to assess if a patient’s depressed mood is a form of clinical depression that needs treatment.

M: Mood depressed
S: Sleep decreased
I: Interest decreased in activities
G: Guilt or worthlessness
E: Energy decrease
C: Concentration difficulties
A: Appetite disturbance or weight loss
P: Psychomotor retardation/agitation (sluggishness)
S: Suicidal thoughts

“If a patient answers yes to five or more of the areas, it’s a good indication that they are experiencing more than the blues and need medical treatment,” he explains.

If you or a loved one is struggling with depression this winter season, we can help connect you to a doctor who can assist you. Call the EvergreenHealth Nurse Navigator & Healthline at 425.899.3000

Want More Healthiest Best Exercise Ideas?

Visit our Healthiest Best Exercise homepage for more great ideas to work activity into your daily routine.