WASHINGTON — Feeling sluggish, irritable and hungry — like you just want to hole up with a bowl of pasta and hibernate until spring?
With the fun and festive holiday season behind us, and a stretch of cold months and gray days ahead, it’s not uncommon to experience a bout of the winter blues come January.
In fact, 4 to 6 percent of adults suffer from winter depression, and another 10 to 20 percent endure mild seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a subtype of depression that comes and goes with the seasons.
Researchers attribute the seasonal struggle, which most experience in the fall and winter months, to lack of sunlight, which can disrupt the body’s internal clock and cause a drop in serotonin levels.
Health professionals have long prescribed light therapy as a treatment for SAD, and while this standard therapy is shown to reduce symptoms by as much as 70 percent, there are other ways to keep the winter blues at bay — including exercise.
Many studies show that regular exercise increases serotonin production and lowers rates of depression. And it doesn’t take much to make a difference. Personal trainer Josef Brandenburg says three hours of vigorous exercise a week is all you need to ward off a slight case of the seasonal slumps.
“One interesting thing: Every hour that you add to your week of exercise cuts your risk for depression in the future in half,” Brandenburg says.
And while any exercise is better than nothing, higher intensity workouts yield better results when it comes to mental health. So don’t be afraid to break a sweat, even in the frigid temps.
“Adding three hours of walking to your life is certainly a great idea; bumping it up a little more intensely seems to make it more effective,” he adds.
Before you lace up your shoes and hit the gym, Brandenburg says to first set realistic goals. If working out is new to you, don’t expect to complete a 5-mile run from the get-go — and don’t schedule a workout for seven days a week. Aim for three days, to start.
If you need help sticking to a regular workout schedule, find a source of accountability. This can be a friend who exercises regularly or a personal trainer or class instructor.
“The more you’re out of the habit and the less you feel like [working out], the more help you’re going to need,” Brandenburg says.
Finally, keep your workouts interesting. Winter weather provides some challenges to outdoor activities, but that doesn’t mean you need to relegate yourself to a treadmill or elliptical at the gym.
“If the exercise that you’re thinking about doing requires you to watch television in order to make it tolerable, it’s probably too boring for you to want to stick with it,” Brandenburg says.
Try a group class, such as barre or cycling, or join a running club or yoga studio. There are a number of free fitness classes offered in the D.C. area throughout the year, and lots of classes that promote socialization and health. (Yoga in a brewery, followed by a happy hour? Yes, please!)
Brandenburg also recommends strength training and interval training as an activity that occupies both your body and your mind.
“You’re not going to be doing any activity for maybe longer than 60 seconds at a time, and you’re sort of forced into being engaged.”
Want to give exercise a try this winter? Brandenburg offers a quick at-home workout you can complete any time of day with minimal equipment.
Start your workout with two stretches to get the blood flowing and your muscles in the mood to work. These stretches will also help open up your shoulders, which can boost your mood.
Hold the Pretzel 1.0 stretch for 30 seconds; complete two repetitions.
Hold the Pretzel 2.0 stretch for 30 seconds; complete two repetitions.
Next, move on to three reps of 15 side lunges at a moderate tempo.
And then three reps of side planks, hold for 30 seconds each.
Next up is the plank progression. Complete three reps of 10 to 15 planks (you can use paper plates on carpet or a dish towel on hardwood floors).
Followed by three reps of 10 to 15 brace squats (a water bottle will work just fine for this).
Next, it’s time to get your heart rate up. Complete four to six reps of jumping rope (50 revolutions), with 30 seconds of rest in between. If you don’t have a jump rope, you can always do a pretend jump rope.
If you have a dumbbell at home, this metabolic countdown exercise is a great workout.