How To Beat The Winter Blues: The Connection Between Physical Activity And Mental Health
Take charge this winter and establish helpful habits to ward off the winter blues
Guest post by Kate Lorke-McMeans, an AFLCA certified Personal Fitness and Pre/Post Natal Trainer.
You don’t have to be an expert to know that physical activity and exercise are good for your health. Just about anywhere you look you are presented with evidence of how an active lifestyle can impressively lower the risk of an early death, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes or certain cancers. Whether you like it or not, there is no getting away from the information that keeps on telling you to be active. Ignorance is bliss no more. And that is a good thing!
Keep reading to learn about the connection between physical activity and mental health as well as the difference between physical activity vs exercise. As the days get shorter and the winter season approaches, you may feel blue or get in a slump, otherwise known as the winter blues. This blog post will provide helpful tips to beat the winter blues.
Healthy Body, Healthy Mind?
The way health is viewed has drastically changed over the years. The traditional understanding of health simply assessed an individual’s susceptibility to disease. If no diagnostic criteria for disease were present, the individual was declared healthy. The modern understanding of health is a much more evolved one. Rather than only paying attention to one’s physical markers such as blood pressure, weight or the presence of physical symptoms, the overall well-being is given just as much consideration. This holistic approach includes an individual’s mental and emotional health as well as the place they hold in their social and intellectual surroundings. In other words, the term health now no longer only focuses on the physical, but rather the physical and the mental state of a person.
This has been an important shift! Understanding the connection between body and mind enables us to embrace and view being active as a vital stepping stone on the road to betterment. Let’s explore this topic.
Physical Activity vs. Exercise
It is important to point out that there is a difference between regular physical activity and a structured exercise regimen.
The World Health Organization classifies physical activity as “any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that require energy expenditure”.
Examples include walking, cycling, gardening or recreational sports.
Exercise on the other hand is “a type of physical activity that involves planned, structured, and repetitive bodily movement done to maintain or improve one or more components of physical fitness” (CDC – National Center for Health Statistics).
Examples include weight lifting, a 10 km run or aerobic classes.
The takeaway is that depending on the individual’s fitness level, exercise can be construed as physical activity, but physical activity may not necessarily classify as exercise.
If you are a beginner, don’t let this discourage you! Here is the good news: You don’t have to be a future Olympian to help yourself feel better! Even moderate levels of physical activity can have a major impact on your well-being. For an overall improvement in mental and physical health, the WHO recommends the following guidelines for adults:
- 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity/per week or
- 75 – 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity/per week or
- An equivalent combination of the above
How Does Physical Activity Affect Mental Health?
In order to help ourselves achieve better health, any activity counts. When we decide to get off the couch and get moving, a number of things happen inside our bodies. The human body’s desire to achieve a state of homeostasis causes multiple organ systems to respond to the increased demands in respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic efforts.
One of the systems responding is the endocrine system. The endocrine system is a network of glands inside our body. It produces hormones which get released into the bloodstream and are vital to our body’s function and well-being. When we are physically active, the amount of circulating hormones in our blood increases to keep up with the demands.
Brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin – often known as the “happy hormones” – are responsible for the regulation of pain perception, the sleep-wake cycle and our mood. Dopamine and serotonin are associated with the reward system of the brain and are responsible for the feelings of pleasure we experience.
Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to increase the concentration of brain neurotransmitters in the blood in a way that appears may be just as effective in its outcome as the taking of anti-depression medications in individuals suffering from mild depression or anxiety.
Other Effects of Physical Activity on Depression and Anxiety
The production of hormones through an elevated heart rate, however, is not the only important factor at play. There are other ways regular exercise can have an effect on mental health. Wondering if physical activity helps with depression? The Mayo Clinic and other health organizations support that exercise can help with depression and anxiety by providing psychological and emotional benefits.
These benefits and effects of exercise and physical activity on depression include:
- Confidence gains (meeting exercise goals, improved body image)
- Social interactions (exercise classes, being active with friends/neighbours)
- Improvement of healthy coping skills (taking charge through exercise vs. dwelling on your feelings/utilizing addictive behaviours)
However, even without an official depression or anxiety diagnosis, feeling down and tired can be a real problem. Especially in the wintertime.
Our Mood and the Seasons
It’s that time of the year again. The summer heat is a thing of the past, the leaves have changed colour and fallen off. While some people favour the fall season, others struggle to enjoy the crisper air. For us here in the far North, the arrival of winter is as certain as – well – the changing of the seasons. While winter sports enthusiasts may be eagerly awaiting the first flakes, many Canadians find themselves in a different kind of mood. If you are one of them, you are not alone. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, approximately 15% of Canadians will report at least a mild case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) while many more may experience the feeling of the “winter blues.”
What are The Winter Blues?
While SAD is classified as a subtype of major depression by the Brain & Behaviour Research Foundation and requires an actual diagnosis, the winter blues is primarily brought on by reduced sun exposure, reduced opportunities for outdoor activities as well as less frequent social get-togethers due to the inclement weather conditions. If you are feeling worn-out, tired and overall down when winter hits you might be affected.
The human circadian rhythm plays a huge role in this. It is strongly connected to our sleep-wake cycle, metabolism and the release of hormones. Like an internal clock, our circadian rhythm depends to a large degree on the sunlight so it doesn’t come as a surprise that studies have pointed to the lack of natural light during the winter months as the culprit for decreased production of the “happy hormones.” Dropping serotonin levels leave many of us feeling blue.
Get in Charge: How to Beat the Winter Blues
It is important to understand that the winter blues is not just something we can simply shake off. It is a physiological reaction to the changes in season accompanied by shorter days with their reduced sunshine hours. However, rather than dreadfully waiting out the snowy months, take charge this winter and establish helpful habits to ward off the winter blues.
Here is what you can do:
- Eat balanced meals. While the usual sugary foods and potato chips are no doubt a temporary mood booster, they can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and fall shortly after, along with your energy, mood and mental state. Focus on eating every 3-5 hours and choose meals with more whole grains, a source of protein as well as, fruits or vegetables. And don’t forget to drink water! Dehydration can make you feel tired and sluggish as well.
- Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Do it in one setting or split it up into several shorter intervals. Go for a bike ride, a brisk dog walk, a swim at your local pool or take an exercise class. If possible, include your friends or partner and go outside into the sunshine whenever possible. At work, suggest a walking meeting with a colleague, take the stairs or get off the bus one stop away for a longer commute. Limit long amounts of time spent being sedentary.
And lastly, do not be afraid to ask for help. If you need assistance in setting up an exercise routine, get in touch with a personal trainer to help you get started. If you need support in the nutrition department, contact a Registered Dietitian.
If you feel your winter blues is more than just the winter blues, reach out. Get help. Get better.
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” ~ Albert Camus
Kate Lorke-McMeans is an AFLCA-certified Personal Fitness and Pre/Post Natal Trainer. She has worked with clients of all ages and fitness levels, focusing on helping them achieve their individual goals.
She offers in-home one-on-one or small group training. Kate takes pride in promoting a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle that is about finding a balance between what’s good for your body and good for your soul.
To learn more and to get in touch, visit Kate at:
Looking for more information about nutrition and mental health?
Don’t go through this journey alone, reach out to one of our Dietitians for support and have all the keys to success!
Our Registered Dietitian team specialize in nutrition for mental health, meal planning, weight concerns, emotional eating, eating disorders, digestive health and more. Find out more about our Dietitian Nutrition Counseling Programs here.
Also, subscribe to our weekly newsletter to never miss out on any tips, advice, and recipes!
Check out these related blogs on our website:
Brought to you by our friendly Registered Dietitian team at Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc. For more balanced living advice check out our RESOURCE MEGA BANK of nutrition articles, videos, healthy recipes, newsletters and meal planning kits here: www.healthstandnutrition.com/personal-nutrition/resource-mega-bank/