December is Seasonal Affective Disorder awareness month.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is considered to be a seasonal depression. It usually affects people during the winter months, when there are fewer daylight hours and is often called ‘winter depression’ or the ‘winter blues’. However there are number of SAD sufferers who become depressed during the spring and summer months.
SAD is a real medical condition related to lower levels of neurotransmitters in the brain including serotonin and norepinephrine as well as disrupted circadian rhythms due to a lack of daylight.
Currently the most common form of treatment for this disorder is light therapy. This ‘tricks’ the brain into believing there are more daylight hours by adding additional light with the use of a light box.
What are the signs and symptoms of SAD?
- Feelings of despair
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Weight gain
- A change in appetite
- Social withdrawal
- Low self esteem
- Lowered libido
Some sufferers begin the season with mild symptoms which progress and become more severe as the season progresses.
How can physical activity and exercise help?
Research suggests that physical activity/exercise can help boost mood (particularly running) and relieve stress and anxiety, both attributing factors of SAD. Research has found that 1 hour of physical activity/exercise outdoors has the same benefit as 2 and a half hours of light therapy, and that's even on cloudy days!
Therefore for optimal benefits it is suggested that exercise or physical activity is carried out in the daytime while in the winter months, early morning is more beneficial.
To ensure that adding exercise and/or physical activity to the sufferers routine does not cause further undue stress, the recommended exercise prescription is to include moderate activity for a minimum of 2 hours per week and outdoors if possible/suitable. This can be 30 minutes per day at least 5 times per week. The key is to fit the activity into the existing routine and not be an additional stressor.
Cardiovascular exercise has proven to be particularly effective at increasing energy throughout the day as opposed to exercise options such as weight lifting and other power activities. Therefore example exercises include a brisk walk or cycle or even sledding and snowball fights all of which are proven to help fight the winter blues.