Is SAD Keeping You From the Gym?

By Dina Cheney

New Year’s resolutions can help motivate us to hit the gym, even in the dead of winter. But for some, the darker, colder weather can cause a feeling of lethargy or even sadness. This malaise is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and it’s a legit issue.

What are its symptoms?

Think of SAD as like a milder form of depression, says Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, with the Center for Behavioral Health at the Cleveland Clinic. Those with the condition often feel down and unmotivated, and they can experience shifts in sleep and appetite plus struggles with concentration. “My clients often deal with weight gain, as their cravings for carbohydrates and their emotional eating increase during the winters,” she says. Since, when it gets dark early, many skip their evening walk or gym session, SAD also can lead to losses in fitness.

Why does it happen?

SAD is often caused by a disruption to our circadian rhythms, Albers-Bowling says. “The change in sunlight interrupts our body’s natural internal clock, leading to shifts in serotonin (the chemical that makes you happy) and melatonin (the chemical that helps regulate your sleep and mood).”

Who is most susceptible?

Between 1 and 10 percent of the population experiences SAD, says Albers-Bowling, with four times more women than men affected. Seventy percent of already-depressed people feel worse in the winter, she continues. So if you’ve been prone to mental health issues like anxiety, you have a higher chance of suffering from SAD.

How do I know if it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If your symptoms pass when the season changes, you probably have SAD, she explains. “People impacted by SAD notice a pattern or trend each year at about the same time. Generally, they begin in the fall and continue throughout the winter.” Or for those who experience SAD during the summer (yes, that’s also a possibility), they often feel more anxiety or irritability. For your condition to officially qualify as SAD, the pattern must last for at least two years, Albers-Bowling says.

What can I do to overcome it?

If you think you might have seasonal affective disorder, consider visiting a warm, sunny spot in the middle of the cold season. Otherwise, try to get as much sunlight as you can, especially by spending time outdoors. And when you’re inside, open the blinds and sit next to windows during the day. Also, think about investing in a light therapy box, such as this top-rated one, positioning yourself a few feet from it each morning. “The light mimics outdoor light, which helps trigger the neurotransmitters that cause mood changes,” Albers-Bowling says. Sticking to a routine and exercising also can be helpful, the latter to keep serotonin levels in check.

If your symptoms still don’t disappear, let your doctor know, she recommends. “Since, if left untreated, SAD can spiral into depression, it’s important to take it seriously.” At your appointment, your doctor might screen you for the condition using a tool called SPAQ (Seasonal Pattern Assessment Questionnaire). The doctor also might check your vitamin D levels, and if they’re low, he or she might recommend a supplement. (In addition, you can boost your intake of this nutrient by eating eggs; salmon and tuna; wild mushrooms; and fortified milk, juice and cereal.) If your symptoms are extreme and persistent, your doctor might ultimately prescribe an antidepressant. 

Video credit: Future Artist, Getty Images
Photo credit: BenAkiba, Getty Images; Tiago Bandeira, Unsplash; Ernest Brillo, Unsplash; SDI Productions, Getty Images; Wavebreakmedia, Getty Images; Oppdowngalon, Getty Images


Don’t leave without becoming a 24Life Insider! Get free 24Life workouts, recipes, lifestyle hacks and more direct to your inbox.


Dina Cheney

Dina Cheney is a writer and recipe developer whose cookbooks include “The New Milks,” “Mug Meals,” “Meatless All Day,” “Year-Round Slow Cooker,” “Williams-Sonoma New Flavors for Salads,” and “Tasting Club.” She has contributed articles and recipes to Every Day with Rachel Ray, Parents, Fine Cooking, Clean Eating, Specialty Food, Coastal Living, The Huffington Post, and more. Cheney is a graduate of The Institute of Culinary Education and Columbia University. Find her online at www.dinacheney.com, and her complete collection of non-dairy resources at www.thenewmilks.com.