This time of year brings with it changes in weather, sleep patterns, activity levels and mood.
Although not present in most people, some can experience what is sometimes called winter blues or seasonal depression.
In the mid ’80s, a placebo-controlled study documented this phenomenon, which later became known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Initially there was a fair amount of scepticism, but in the past 15 years, SAD has become an accepted condition.
People who experience this mood disorder often have normal mental health throughout most of the year, but experience depression-related symptoms during the same season year after year. It can occur in the summer or spring, but very commonly is a winter phenomenon.
Symptoms may not be related to depression, however – lethargy or too much sleep may be the apparent manifestations.
Symptoms may become quite severe, but usually disappear at the end of the season.
Seasonal mood variations are believed to be related to the amount of light during the day, partly because of the favourable effect of bright-light therapy has on the condition and also because the incidence of SAD is measurably more frequent in latitudes that are further from the equator.
This may be a natural response that is rooted in our evolution. Many animal species, exhibit diminished activity, including hibernation, during the winter months in response to the reduction in available food and the difficulties of surviving in cold weather.
Presumably, food was scarce during most of human prehistory, and a tendency toward low mood during the winter months would have been adaptive by reducing the need for calorie intake.
One way to help battle this seasonal mood change, whether SAD is confirmed or not, is to exercise.
When you exercise, a number of positive things happen, including the release of chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals are manufactured in the pituitary gland of your brain, in the spinal cord, and many other parts of your body ,and they do a variety of things, from helping reduce pain to inducing a feeling of calm and well-being.
It also triggers a euphoric feeling, which in runners has been known as the ‘runner’s high.’
This euphoria is thought to help balance the tendency of seasonal low mood states and even depression.
When people are in low mood states or are depressed, they will sometimes use food to try to boost their mood, which can lead to overeating and weight gain, further exacerbating the situation. This is another reason why exercise is a better strategy to not just boost mood, but to be tangibly pro-active.
The other spin-off effect that exercise has is that it increases the ability of your muscles to store carbohydrate energy in the form of glycogen. You have no doubt noticed that athletes seem to have boundless energy, and that is, in part, due to the reserves of stored energy in their bodies.
Those who exercise more will tend to not be as lethargic, especially in the winter months.
Exercise can be done for many reasons, including reducing the risks of many disease states, reducing excess body weight and so on.
But the way to keep yourself coming back for more is to realize that exercise makes you feel good.
Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology in Maple Ridge.