By Jeff Louderback
It’s ironic, but no laughing matter for anyone who has depression or anxiety. Exercise is proven to be more effective than pharmaceuticals in helping you thrive with either condition, yet when you have depression or anxiety, any form of fitness seems like a challenge. As an old adage says, more than 50 percent of the battle is getting to the gym, but once you walk through the doors of any fitness center, or start your workout at home or with a personal trainer, exercise can make a significant positive difference, especially in the dark winter months
December marks the beginning of a winter season that is often defined by cold temperatures, occasional snow and ice, and little sunshine. As days get shorter and the nights grow colder, the “winter blues” can make even the most cheerful person feel down. Sniffling, coughing, seasonal depression and enhanced fatigue are among the struggles that can accompany the time between December and March in Ohio. That is why regular exercise is especially beneficial.
It is widely known that exercise helps prevent and improve a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help improve mood and reduce anxiety.
A study from Harvard University says that even walking fast for 35 minutes a day five times a week or an hour a day three times a week to improve symptoms of depression created by what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Taking literal and figurative steps forward each day helps you on the journey to reaching wellness goals and feeling happier during the winter months.
The links between depression, anxiety and exercise aren’t entirely clear, but working out and other forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and make you feel better. Exercise may also help keep depression and anxiety from coming back once you’re feeling better.
Here are reasons why exercise is especially good for the body, mind and soul when the temperature is cold and the days feel darker:
It can help you to replace bad habits with good ones
It’s easy to find an excuse not to exercise during the winter, so why not challenge yourself with a variety of workouts. Even if you work out three times a week, that is better than nothing at all! And when you exercise regularly, you are more apt to make better dietary choices.
It fuels a healthier mind
With these tips in mind, exercise not just for physical goals like weight loss, muscle growth, flexibility and speed among others, but do so to feel better with your mind. Instead of picking a generic exercise program where you are left on your own, you can surround yourself with the camaraderie of other like-minded fitness enthusiasts and stay motivated with a variety of classes at at a fitness center, or stay motivated by working out with a personal trainer.
It could improve your immune system
Colds, coughing, congestion, sniffles and the flu are unfortunate staples of winter. Exercise is an excellent way to help boost your immune system and fight off illness. Getting your blood pumping helps circulate immune cells, and detects and destroys infection more effectively. Healthy eating accompanied by consistent exercise are essential to minimizing extra sick days over the winter.
It can help you curb cravings
Serotonin, the mood-enhancing chemical in the brain, is less active in the winter due to diminished sunlight. This shortage leaves you feeling tired and hungry, which can trigger cravings. If you consume more calories than the body burns, and you skip your workouts, those excess calories will be stored on your body as fat and you will gain weight.
It can give you a detoxing boost
During the holidays, and the winter in general, imbibing in a higher amount of food and alcohol places a heavier toxic burden on the liver. Even moderate exercise elevates the blood flow to the liver, improving its ability to detoxify waste.
It can improve your mood by releasing endorphins
Because of the darker and colder days, winter is a challenging time to remain positive, motivated and productive, especially in your gym workouts. Exercise improves your mood and your overall psychological state. Studies indicate that exercise boosts endorphins, those feel good hormones. It is important to participate in heavy weight training and High Intensity Interval Training workouts to reap the best benefits.
Regular exercise has multiple psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:
- Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
- Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
- Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.
- Physical activity such as regular walking may help improve mood. Physical activity and exercise are not the same thing, but both are beneficial to your health.
Physical activity is any activity that works your muscles and requires energy and can include work or household or leisure activities. Exercise is a planned, structured and repetitive body movement done to improve or maintain physical fitness.
The word “exercise” may make you think of running laps around the gym. But exercise includes a wide range of activities that boost your activity level to help you feel better.
Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.
You don’t have to do all your exercise or other physical activity at once. Broaden how you think of exercise and find ways to add small amounts of physical activity throughout your day. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park a little farther away from work to fit in a short walk. Or, if you live close to your job, consider biking to work.
Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.
The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with it over the long term — another good reason to focus on finding activities that you enjoy.
Don’t think of exercise or physical activity as a chore. If exercise is just another “should” in your life that you don’t think you’re living up to, you’ll associate it with failure. Rather, look at your exercise or physical activity schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small. If you skip exercise one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine and might as well quit. Just try again the next day. Stick with it.